Romney may very well get a bounce in the polls, with five weeks of campaigning to go and two more debates, one on foreign policy. The Republican needs a turnaround, with polls revealing significant deficits in likability as well as confidence in his ability to handle a range of issues. Yes, Romney has hammered Obama all campaign season on his handling of the economy. But before Wednesday night he had failed to put a human dimension on that argument by demonstrating empathy for the struggles of everyday Americans.
To that end, Romney recited the numbers of people on food stamps, the rising numbers of families in poverty. It gave him a more compassionate profile, even while he railed against the size of government. He repeatedly harped on what he said was Obama’s “trickle-down government” approach.
The debate also provided Americans their first chance to see the two architects of the most significant health insurance reforms stand side by side — the Massachusetts health care overhaul, and Obama’s federal plan of 2010.
The president repeated his favorite response to Romney’s attacks, saying his plan was based on the program Romney signed into law as governor of Massachusetts. Romney’s plan was “essentially the identical model,” Obama said.
Romney, who had been under pressure from some Republicans to apologize for passing his plan, similarly made a strategic decision in how to handle questions about it.
“I like the way we did it in Massachusetts” with bipartisan support, Romney said, contrasting it with how Obama’s plan was passed without Republican support. Romney said he would let states work out their own solutions.
Romney had performed well in debates during the Republican primary contest. But the competition was not as formidable, the focus of the entire nation not as direct.
Wednesday night, one question was whether he could repair some of the damage wrought by secretly recorded remarks in Florida this year, when he was taped telling financial backers he need not concern himself with 47 percent of Americans. That outburst of apparent insensitivity played perfectly into the negative stereotype of Romney as an out-of-touch defender of the wealthy.
Nothing Obama said in the debate revived that version of Romney in viewers’ minds.