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“Debate #1: Wow!” by Clark Judge

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A special column from Clark Judge, who actually knows what it means to advise presidents on messaging:

Debate #1: Wow!
By Clark S. Judge: managing director, White House Writers Group, Inc.; chairman, Pacific Research Institute

Remember that line at the end of The Sting? Triumphant over the success of their project, Robert Redford turns to Paul Newman, recalling Newman’s warning when they first hatched their plan, says, “You were right, it’s not enough.” Then he breaks into a big smile and adds, “But it’s close.”

That was last night’s debate.

No, it was not the end of the campaign. But it was huge. Maybe more than the all-but-unanimous view of the commentariate has it that Romney won and won big. For the critical demographic number in this race is not the 2% or the 47% but the 14% — the 14% of voters who tell Rasmussen pollsters that they are not certain voters for either the president or Governor Romney (by polling standards those who are certain are evenly split between the two candidates).

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How transformative was last night’s confrontation for the 14%? Frank Luntz ran one of his focus groups on the Fox News Channel. When Luntz asked who had voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, a large portion of his thirty to forty member group raised their hands. With only a few exceptions, all had flipped to Romney by evening’s end.

There will be lots of talk in the days ahead about Romney’s clear and devastating (to Obama) explanation of his tax position, Medicare, the price of Solyndra and other boondoggles in other lost opportunities… his apt phrase “trickle-down government”… his noting that most of the oil-industry tax breaks the president routinely denounces go to small drillers and will be candidates for elimination if he (Romney) can bring the corporate tax rate down enough… his calling out of Obama’s fantasy charge about businesses getting tax breaks for moving jobs overseas (“I’ve been in business for 25 years and I have no idea what you’re talking about”).

The list goes on and on. For the first time someone effectively challenged the president’s parallel universe version of both Mr. Romney’s positions and the way our economy operates – and all the world could see that, confronted with reality, Mr. Obama had no real response.

I don’t want to get lost in movie analogies, but at times it was like the moment Keanu Reeves wakes up in The Matrix with Lawrence Fishburne looking down on him and Fishburne intones, “Welcome to the real world.”

All that was great. But listening to Luntz’s group, something else stood out as the ultimately transformative moment of the night: Governor Romney’s discussion of reaching across the aisle in Massachusetts, including his entirely adult noting that, while a leader lays down broad principles, there will be many approaches for getting to those principle and a leader can’t take a “my way or the highway” approach.

As I say, Romney’s was an adult account of political leadership and went directly to the signal shortcomings of the president’s tenure, announced in the early days of his presidency. No statement showed Mr. Obama’s lack of preparation for the White House more completely than three words he spoke to the Republican House caucus when he met with first them: “Remember, I won.”

That is not how a mature political executive (mayor, governor or president) talks to legislators. Romney’s account of how he met his Massachusetts challenge (a legislature that was 87 percent Democrat) showed how big time political leaders work. From their discussion, it sounded to me as though that moment sealed the deal for the switchers in the Luntz focus group.

Ahead of us lie three debates, four and a half weeks of campaigning, hundreds of rallies, a hundred thousand or more 30-second ads, untold Internet ads, probably more Chicago-style graveyard voting than we have ever seen in a presidential contest, some kind of October surprise from Team Obama (perhaps a bogus charge against Mr. Romney coming too late for correction before Election Day) – in other words, get ready for the eternity in an hour character of the final weeks of a presidential contest.

But still… still… last night was transformative. An adult candidate spoke to the voters as adults. If he keeps it up through Election Day, America just might elect a new president. Wow!


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