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I think this succinct analysis of the debate is dead on.

1. Romney controlled the format: For better or worse, moderator Jim Lehrer largely let the candidates sort out the debate themselves, essentially broaching broad topics and letting the candidates duke it out on their own terms — with almost-endless rebuttals. This format favored Romney. Romney’s campaign went into the debate with an attack mindset (as most candidates who are behind do), and by allowing all those rebuttals, Lehrer gave Romney a chance to execute. He did. Obama wasn’t as focused on attacking, which works less well when there is so much back-and-forth.

2. Obama seemed frazzled: He didn’t have an Al-Gore-sighs moment, but Obama was clearly not having a good time on stage. His head was down when Romney was talking, his responses were halting at times, he often nodded (as if showing approval) or smirked when Romney was talking, and he even conceded some points to Romney on issues like deficit reduction and not being a “perfect” president. None of these were by themselves huge moments (as Gore’s sigh was), but the totality suggested a candidate who wasn’t terribly comfortable. And he wasn’t.

3. The politics of preemption: Romney knew going into the debate that he was going to be attacked for raising taxes on the middle class (according to an oft-cited study) and favoring the wealthy, so what he did was preemptively assure that he would not raise taxes on the middle class, repeating that over and over again and suggesting that it’s Obama who would raise taxes on the middle class. He also made a point to emphasize the poor (think: “I’m not concerned about the very poor“). By setting the terms of the tax cut debate, Romney offset the gains that Obama might have been able to make on a class issue that polls suggest the president is winning.

4. Obama didn’t get his big talking points in: If you would have told us before the debate that Obama would mention the auto bailout and Osama bin Laden only once and wouldn’t mention Bain Capital or Romney’s “47 percent” comments at all, we would have told you you were crazy. Yet that’s exactly what happened. Obama seemed predisposed with not engaging too much with Romney, but the debate was all about engaging with one another, and Obama didn’t even register the biggest hits on Romney.

5. The expectations were low: There’s a reason the campaigns spend so much time lowering expectations for the debate; expectations matter. And polls showed that, going into the debate, the American public, by a large margin, expected Obama to win. With the bar relatively low for Romney, it was that much easier to clear. That’s not to say Romney didn’t have a good debate. He did. But candidates will always be graded on a curve, and Romney beat the curve.

6. Romney avoided a stumble: Romney’s campaign has been colored by the occasional gaffe which shows the candidate to be out of touch or just plain awkward. There were a couple iffy moments on that count (Big Bird, anyone?), but the GOP nominee’s performance was largely gaffe-free. Without a “47 percent” or “I’m not concerned about the very poor” moment, Romney allowed for the post-debate analysis to focus on other things, which is what he needs.
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