It would be hard to brand the 2012 Presidential Election race as anything but tumultuous. Just a month ago many had written Mitt Romney off as a no-hoper and all but assumed that the White House was Barack Obama’s for another four years. But in recent weeks, the race has taken a decided turn for the unexpected.
First, there was Denver. The opening presidential debate saw Obama and Romney lock horns in a televised, dizzyingly high profile forum judged by spectators across the world. On the face of it, Romney looked almost destined to fail. Secretly filmed footage was leaked back in September in which the former Massachusetts governor blasted 47% of Americans for not paying income tax and viewing themselves as victims. Surely this was evidence of just how out-of-touch the millionaire businessman was with the people; surely even Republicans would balk at the idea of such blinkered leadership?
Naturally, Obama supporters assumed that the President would tear his opponent to shreds over those comments, as well as employing his usual charm and likeability to win over the audience. The numbers echoed this confidence – one Washington Post poll put the President a devastating nine points ahead of his rival.
…the most valuable ammunition…
But the underdog label, it seems, gave Romney the jolt he needed. He brimmed with enthusiasm and fight in his answers, outlining a vision for the economy and the country with passion, if not specifics. Obama, by contrast, appeared lethargic and tired, stuttering through answers and failing to seize opportunities to cut Romney down on his personal and campaign weaknesses. There was no mention, astonishingly, of the 47% comments, perhaps the most valuable ammunition in the President’s entire armoury.
Certainly there were gleaming question marks over the accuracy of many of Romney’s statements. He repeatedly rebuffed Obama’s claim, for example, that the Republican ticket would bring in $5 trillion of tax cuts, despite the Democrat team arguing furiously that this had long formed one of the most basic components of Romney’s policy.
…won the first laugh of the night…
And yet in terms of likeability, the wooden awkward figure the American public had witnessed at the Republican convention had vanished, replaced by a far more enthused, animated and even amusing orator.
While Obama paid an arguably overly sentimental tribute to his wife in honour of their wedding anniversary, it was Romney who won the first laugh of the night. “Congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary”, he said. “I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine – here with me”.
…dismissing the President’s comments…
Then there were the stinging, if somewhat prepared, verbal punches directed towards the President. “Mr. President, you’re entitled, as the president, to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts, all right?”, Romney sneered, dismissing the President’s comments on education funding.
…Romney had surged ahead of Obama in popularity…
Obama had nothing in the tank when it came to responding. He looked down as Romney hurled criticism his way, absorbed in vital note-taking perhaps, but nevertheless appearing humble, chastened and lacking in defiance.
The polls, never forgiving at the best of times, were merciless. Three different polls found that Romney had surged ahead of Obama in popularity in the days following the debate, by as many as four percentage points. Obama’s advisers looked visibly drained of their usual buoyancy and confidence, despite battling on in valiant defence of their candidate. For them, the second debate had now been propelled from an exercise in rhetoric to a make-or-break gladiator fight.
…questions from members of the public…
And so to New York, where the two candidates would meet each other in the seemingly amicable context of a Town Hall Meeting, featuring questions from members of the public. Yet even the most gentle of observers would have struggled to glean the slightest shred of amicability in the Romney/Obama cross fire.
Gone was Obama the meek – instead, the combative Barack of old burst onto the floor. In the first question alone, he blasted Romney’s approach to the failing automobile industry, “When Governor Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt. I said we’re going to bet on American workers!”, and accused him of favouring the wealthy, “Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules!”
Romney looked enraged…
He even threw in some personal jibes, so conspicuous by their previous absence in Denver. When asked by his opponent whether he looked at his own pension investments, Obama quipped: “I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours – so it doesn’t take as long”.
But his moment of triumph was yet to come – and was, in fact, handed to him on a Libya-shaped platter by Romney. The former Governor insisted that Obama had failed to label last month’s Benghazi attack on the US Consulate as an act of terror. After several seconds of blustering, moderator, Candy Crowley, was forced to point out that the President had in fact called it just that the day after the attack. Romney looked enraged and deeply embarrassed, while Obama epitomised the cat that swiped the organic cream. “Could you say that a little louder, Candy?” he purred.
…he came out with some unforgettable gaffes…
Romney certainly didn’t do himself any favours. Despite some eloquently put answers, and some justified criticisms of the President’s performance in office, he came out with some unforgettable gaffes. The most memorable, in which he claimed to have rifled through “binders of women” to find qualified females to include in his Massachusetts cabinet, spawned hundreds of joke images online, as well as its own heavily visited website.
Little wonder that the polls punished Romney for his ineptitude. Polls released in the days following their New York bout showed Obama making up the ground Denver had cost him. A Real Clear Politics average of polls from 7 October to 18 October found that Obama had crept back ahead, giving him a 0.1% advantage overall. The President is clearly very much back in the game.
Yet his stuttering opening debate performance, and the shot of hope that will have surged through Romney as a result, has made this anyone’s race. Next week, the two rivals will face each other for the final time in the third debate, battling it out over issues of foreign policy. This time, they will face each other in Florida – affectionately known as the Sunshine State. Sunshine or otherwise, both will know what’s at stake – and both will be feeling the heat.
Images courtesy of DonkeyHotey