Last night, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama took part in the first of three debates that will take place before the November election.  The Denver Debate focused exclusively on domestic policy, tackling issues including healthcare, education, government spending, regulation, and the national debt.

By many accounts, Mitt Romney handily won what many had believed to be a critical debate.  This is about the time that many folks who had previously not been following the presidential race were first tuning in, and they saw what was a confident, informed Romney drilling a comparatively uncertain and passive Obama.

There are a few big factors that played into this debate, and it is worthwhile to examine how they operated and how they will influence the next Presidential debate in a few weeks.

(If you missed the debate last night, you can watch the full length video here.  All transcript quotes I use below are pulled from here.)

1. Body Language

This was a huge, ever-present issue from the first ten minutes of the campaign onward.  President Obama took a more passive stance, often looking down at his podium rather than making eye contact.  He blundered and stuttered with  some responses that should have been otherwise very simple, and this combined with a less rigid posture undermined any effort he might have been making to appear as though he was staying on the “high ground.”

Romney, conversely, took a more aggressive posture with his arguments.  He directly looked at Jim Lehrer, the moderator, and President Obama when making his points.  He had upright posture, and confident vocal tones.  In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, body language expert Janie Driver said that Romney came off as more confident and knowledgeable.

Driver said Obama kept his head tilted to the side rather than upward, projecting less confidence. Romney kept his head “on straight” and his eyes focused either on the president or the moderator, an improvement over his tendency to shift his eyes in different directions, she said.

“If you were from another country and you watched this based on body language, people would think that Mitt Romney was already the president,” she said.

How will this play out from here?  It would be surprising if Obama’s debate prep team doesn’t drill him on body language between now and the final debate.  Romney won’t have quite the same advantage then, but there is something to be said for consistency.  Obama having to step it up with body language and presentation is harder than Romney having to maintain the same level.
What about the VP nominees?  In next week’s Biden/Ryan Vice Presidential debate, body language will likely be less of an issue: Ryan has an excellent stage presence generally, and Biden will no doubt catch flack after last night’s debate and be more prepared.

2. Sound Byte-Ability

Mitt Romney was much more fact oriented, and was very heavily focused on picking apart visible pieces of President Obama’s record.  This gave him some fantastic clips that will inevitably go viral.  One major moment was when Romney first spoke toward the President’s subsidies of failed green energy companies like Solyndra:

ROMNEY: First of all, the Department of Energy has said the tax break for oil companies is $2.8 billion a year. And it’s actually an accounting treatment, as you know, that’s been in place for a hundred years. Now…

OBAMA: It’s time to end it.

ROMNEY: And in one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world.

Now, I like green energy as well, but that’s about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives. And you say Exxon and Mobil. Actually, this $2.8 billion goes largely to small companies, to drilling operators and so forth.

ROMNEY: But, you know, if we get that tax rate from 35 percent down to 25 percent, why that $2.8 billion is on the table. Of course it’s on the table. That’s probably not going to survive you get that rate down to 25 percent.

But don’t forget, you put $90 billion, like 50 years’ worth of breaks, into — into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tester and Ener1. I mean, I had a friend who said you don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers, all right? So this — this is not — this is not the kind of policy you want to have if you want to get America energy secure.

The entire above clip is relatively short, but that last line will definitely stick.  Romney, using a simple analogy that was mathematically accurate, nailed both the President’s poor decision-making in the energy sector AND the president’s mischaracterization of the tax break given to oil companies.  He hit him again with the $90 Billion figure during the education portion of the debate, saying that the same money could have been put into hiring 2 million teachers.  Not only does the President’s own rhetoric about hiring an army of new teachers get put into question, but also highlights the President’s poor decision making skills and prioritizing.

How will this play out from here?  Obama can’t let Romney get the same kind of sound-byte-able jabs in, especially if he wants to maintain the “incumbent” authority that he’s banking on to help him win reelection.  His coaches will no doubt try to come up with some sort of catchy line or fact byte that he can deploy to similar effect.  He needs the visual of being able to outsmart the competition, and last night just didn’t give it to him.  Romney, on the other hand, will need new material to deploy for the exact same purposes.
What about the VP nominees?  Ryan won’t have trouble with this in the Veep debate next week, though Biden  might be able to fight fire with fire. Or, this could backfire into another string of gaffes.  It will definitely be worth watching.

3. Attack!

Romney was on the attack.  Virtually all night.  It was a risky strategy in a few respects, namely because “aggressive” can quickly devolve into “angry” if not kept under control.  But Romney did need to assert that he was a viable candidate and that he knew what he was talking about, and the strategy paid off.  Obama, partially as a result of body language and partially because of his own attempt to be perceived as more calm and collected, folded in front of many of Romney’s advances.

Many bloggers and commentators picked up on this pattern of an advancing Romney and folding Obama.  Liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast live-blogged the debate, and within minutes became frustrated with the President’s performance.

9.16 pm. Man, Obama is boring and abstract. He’s putting us to sleep. I get his points but he is entirely wonky tonight. And he is on the defensive. Romney’s crazy math is somehow made legitimate. Romney is kicking the president’s ass.

9.11 pm. A good volley back from Obama  but Romney is coming off like Reagan, and has managed to provide anecdotes and stories, while Obama is a little wonky. But when Romney actually said that he wasn’t cutting taxes for the very wealthy, it seems completely out of sync with his actual proposal.

9.07 pm. A nervous but competent beginning by Obama, but I’m struck by the visuals. Romney just looks like a classic president and Obama a very different one. The visuals are with Romney. And his answer was a total re-boot on compassion. This first round goes solidly to Romney.

By the end, Sullivan was beside himself.

10.12 pm. Finally, Obama manages to point out the vagueness of Romney’s hazy alternatives. But Romney, who just rolls ovr Lehrer. Yet another round to Romney. I don’t think Obama has won a single exchange in this entire debate.

10.08 pm. Romney has somehow managed to turn healthcare into a fantasy decision between grim rationing bureaucrats versus patients and hospitals. It’s an amazingly good performance, given the facts and arguments he has to deploy. In response, Obama is stuttering, detailed, wonkish, ineffective.

10.06 pm. I find myself bored silly by Obama. If I am bored silly by this wonkish lecture, and his refusal to rebut specific points, i.e. lies, Obama’s in trouble.

10.03 pm. I simply cannot believe that Mitt Romney is saying he is more bipartisan than Obama. And Obama never pushes back. He is leaving argument after argument on the table, while he seems to be writing a memo to himself whenever Romney is speaking.

Sullivan’s final comment at 10:31 is extremely instructive: “I have experienced many times the feeling that Obama just isn’t in it, that he’s on the ropes and not fighting back, and then he pulls it out. He got a little better over time tonight. But he pulled every punch. Maybe the next two will undo some of the damage. But I have to say I think it was extensive.”  Other Obama supporters also felt the frustration.  MSNBC’s Chris Matthews can be seen in an epic video rant after the debate lamenting “What was Romney doing? He was winning!”

The effectiveness and efficiency of Romney’s attack is what caught many people off guard. is even more impressive considering that Mitt Romney spoke for over four minutes less than President Obama: he made stronger, more lasting points in a shorter period of time.

How will this play out from here?  Obama cannot strategically let Romney dominate him in the same way.  He’s going to have to be combative in their next encounter, or else there will be serious problems for him in the weeks leading up to Election Day.  Romney will expect Obama to change tactics, and will likely adjust his own strategy slightly in anticipation, though Romney can’t ratchet up the attack posture too much further without risking coming across as angry or disrespectful.
What about the VP nominees?  Ryan and Biden will both be feeling the pressure, and Biden in particular will have to make up the ground that the President lost here.  However, Ryan has the know-how and quick thinking to counter, so the Vice Presidential debate should definitely prove to be interesting.

Ultimately, Romney’s position as the candidate in second place wasn’t completely overturned after last night’s debate.  But he did do a brilliant job of arresting his decline and starting the launch back upward.  No doubt there will be media spin-doctors on both sides of the aisle trying to make it either a less impressive or more impressive performance, but it’s the public’s response to the debate that will ultimately prove to be the deciding factor.

But if Romney’s performance last night is indicative of better things to come, the future may be that much brighter for conservatives in November.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin