President Barack Obama met his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Wednesday night in Denver for the first of three presidential debates. CNN contributors and analysts offered these assessments of the evening:
Reihan Salam: Romney scores, but does he have time to turn around campaign?
Mitt Romney pressed the reset button last night on his campaign. He presented himself as a compassionate centrist, deeply concerned about the fate of the unemployed and low-income households struggling to climb the economic ladder in a stagnant economy.
At every opportunity, he made reference to kitchen-table issues such as the difficulty of securing a mortgage and the rising cost of medical insurance, gasoline and electricity. Had Romney been running this campaign since securing the Republican presidential nomination, it is easy to imagine that he would be in a much stronger position in the polls.
What remains to be seen is whether the larger public will embrace Romney's reset.
With just a few weeks to go before the presidential election, and with Democrats gaining momentum in key swing states, it is possible that the Romney campaign simply doesn't have enough time to change the narrative of the campaign. And of course President Barack Obama will have two more debates in which to regain his footing and to take the fight to Romney.
Going forward, it is important that Romney capitalize on his strong debate performance by constantly connecting his campaign agenda to the challenges facing low- and middle-income households. Obama, meanwhile, should prepare for a vigorous Republican case against his foreign policy, which might prove a vulnerability in light of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East.
Reihan Salam, a CNN contributor, is a columnist for Reuters; a writer for the National Review's "The Agenda" blog; a policy adviser for e21, a nonpartisan economic research group; and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."
Ilyse Hogue: Romney's strategy? Lie quickly
In late 2009, freshman congressman Alan Grayson made national headlines when he short-handed the GOP health care plan with the moniker "Die Quickly." Tonight, Mitt Romney showed his strategy for victory is to "Lie Quickly." Romney spouted inaccuracies, obfuscations and flat-out lies with deft and speed that left moderator Jim Lehrer looking and sounding windblown.
Much time and ink will be spent on the style of the debate: Did the president look too professorial? Did you hear Romney's joke about the Obama anniversary? Did Obama look annoyed? Did Romney look flustered? The ability to connect with the American people is important. We want leaders who we like, with whom we feel comfortable, who we think will be on our side. But style is ephemeral and after the courting period, we're stuck with substance for years to come.
So, let's get a few things straight. Romney's tax plan will raise taxes on the middle class, Obama is not cutting Medicare, Obama has cut the deficit, Dodd-Frank did not designate banks too big to fail and the Romney/Ryan plan will put pressure on teachers ones and compromise our children's education. All of these fabrications may have sounded OK coming out of the mouth of an uneven but aggressive challenger. But, as the president said in the debate, Romney's big, bold idea tonight was "never mind." The American people deserve someone who minds.
Ilyse Hogue is co-director of Friends of Democracy, a super PAC aimed at electing candidates who champion campaign finance reform. She is the former director of political advocacy and communications for MoveOn.org and has been a senior strategist to Democratic and progressive groups. She is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.
Timothy Stanley: Romney was on fire
Was Barack Obama given debate training by Rick Perry? Just like the Texas governor did back in the Republican primaries, Obama spent the debate looking tired and distracted. His body language was all wrong -- often directing answers at the moderator rather than his opponent and flashing detached smiles that had a ghost of Richard Nixon about them.
He defended his record rather than go on the attack, and there were no stand-out phrases or moments of vision. During the segment on Obamacare, he should have opened by pointing out that Romney supported a similar reform when he was governor of Massachusetts. Instead, he saved this for a throwaway line and took too long to return to it. The one character issue Romney is really weak on is his record of u-turns. But Obama seemed unwilling to exploit it.
By contrast, Romney was on fire. He was enthusiastic and looked like he'd have happily gone on talking beyond midnight. His zingers might have been pre-prepared, but they were good -- conservative talking heads will all be talking about "trickle-down government" for the next few days.
Importantly, he was centrist (note that he denied wanting to cut education funding and stressed his plan to reduce tax loopholes for the rich) and avoided the culture war issues (no abortion or gay marriage). Given that polls show America was expecting Obama to win big, Romney did himself a lot of favors by delivering the superior performance. All he has to do now is melt the hearts of Ohio's voters, and this contest will become truly competitive again.
Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."
Donna Brazile: Joe Biden, get ready for a workout next week
The first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is now in the books. I can say one thing about this debate: it was neither memorable, nor well-moderated, nor much of a debate. Jim Lehrer is a respected newsman, but he lost control early and allowed the candidates to just rehash their respective talking points.
Governor Romney attempted to dictate tempo and direction. President Obama in order to "stay in the game" had to also ignore the time requirements.
Governor Romney came prepared and brought the same style to the debate that won him the nomination: aggressive, confident, CEO-sympathetic, full of generalities and with his usual Etch A Sketch regard for the truth. I'll let the fact checkers do their job.
President Obama came prepared to discuss both the past and the future. But his style was more reserved and cautious. He was playing "prevent defense," and it showed. He spent most of the night defending his record, the context of which Romney gleefully ignored. As a result, the president was not able to draw the needed clear contrasts between their plans, philosophies and personalities.
Romney will get the expected "bounce" from this debate. He needed to alter the trajectory of the contest and he won points simply for attacking the president, but not truly defining what he will do differently. He told us that there was another path forward.