In the hours leading up to the first face off between President Obama and his Republican challenger Wednesday night, a primary question was which Mitt Romney would show up. But in the end, analysts and viewers were left wondering: Where was Obama?
Throughout the 90-minute debate, Romney was often more targeted and aggressive, looking directly at the president, while Obama looked down. His pre-programmed "zingers" also came in handy, as when he challenged Obama on how he could have spent more time on health care reform than on jobs at the start of his presidency. Perhaps more important, he moved more to the center, espousing policies that contrasted with his stump speeches, with little rebuttal from Obama.
One of the biggest surprises and mysteries was that the president made no mention of his challenger's now famous "47 percent" remarks, the low tax rate he pays on his millions or even his tenure as head of Bain Capital that have been so effective on the campaign trail and on his polling numbers.
During a viewing party hosted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies that included a largely African-American audience, Obama elicited many positive responses, but in a discussion after the debate, it was clear that they felt that his performance was lackluster.
"He seemed soft," said one attendee.
Steven Walker, deputy political director for the Democratic National Committee, seemed almost indignant by the fact that he had to defend Obama's performance to the audience.
"I think it was really clear that the president spoke directly to the American people tonight, what his plan is that would grow the economy from the middle out and said our vision for a place where everyone has a fair shot and plays by the same set of rules. Not only was Romney on the defense but he didn't offer a specific plan for moving the economy forward, nor did he offer specifics for any of the other items that were discussed tonight," Walker told BET.com.
The president was "clear, decisive and firm" on how he would move the country forward, Walker added.
"I thought it was almost a perfect draw," said San Francisco State University political scientist Robert Smith. "But Romney seemed more engaged than the president did."
Smith surmised that each candidate was equally specific — and wonky, but Romney was strongest when he attacked Obama for focusing more on health care reform than jobs. He also thought that Obama was stronger during discussions about health care, but expressed surprise that the president made no mention of the 47 percent or his line of attack that Romney's business experience doesn't make him an expert on jobs and the economy.
"If a person hasn't paid much attention to the campaign until tonight, they wouldn't know the president's main argument against Romney, but they [now] know Romney's main argument against Obama, so in that sense, Romney was more effective," Smith said.
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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)