A Contest of Gentlemen? Few Sparks in First Presidential Debate
'Big Bird' gets a mention, 'sequestration' doesn't in the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney Wednesday night.
ARLINGTON — If the crowd at Busboys and Poets in Shirlington was any indication, Northern Virginia Democrats wanted President Barack Obama to go on the attack Wednesday night during the first presidential debate.
What they got instead was a relatively calm commander-in-chief, one who took the occasional shot at his Republican rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, but not the inspirational orator whose speeches draw thousands to arenas.
Even Democrats were hard-pressed to call the night a win for Obama. Most settled on calling it a tie, or even gave the night to Romney. And while many Republicans and Democrats had similar thoughts on performance, they disagreed about whether it mattered.
"Obama looked really calm and didn't get rattled. Romney seemed more energized, but I know most of his facts are B.S.," said Eric Koszyk of Arlington. "I think it didn't make much of a difference… Obama didn't punch back a lot. But I don't think he needs to. He's winning."
The debate at the University of Denver focused on domestic policy, with a large chunk of time devoted to the economy — and taxes — followed by questions on health care reform, education and the role of government.
One word that wasn't used by either candidate: Sequestration. The potential $500 billion in defense cuts could severely damage Virginia's economy — Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads in particular have large populations working for the Defense Department and related jobs. Perhaps Romney came the closest to addressing the matter, saying he would not cut military spending in his closing remarks. (In Springfield last week, Romney said he would like to increase the country's active military by several thousand.)
"Obama was too wordy at the beginning and then as the debate went on, he didn't use a lot of the things he could have used against Romney. He left a lot on the table," said Ken Feltman, chairman of the Falls Church City Republican Committee.
"Romney very gently locked on and carried Obama around the place in his teeth like a mama lioness with an errant cub," Donald Joy of Herndon posted on Facebook. "It was all about basic laws of economics, and Romney carefully, thoroughly taught Obama a lesson while reassuringly explaining to the American people how the philosophy of capitalism actually works, and creates prosperity. The socialist Obama could only stare at his notes and look at Jim Lehrer pleadingly for help as Romney homed in and blasted away, point-by-point, with a hint of empathy for the plight of the amateur. What a night!"
The reaction was quite different in Democrat-heavy Arlington.
People in the crowd at Busboys shouted "Liar!" during many of Romney's remarks. When Obama delivered the occasional jab, they goaded the large screen: "Come on!"
The president should have better defended his signature health care reform law — he did say he'd become "fond" of the term "Obamacare" — and other initiatives like Race to the Top, said Linda Hermer of Arlington.
Romney, for instance, attacked the president several times for cutting $716 billion to Medicare, but Obama failed to explain that was in the form of over-reimbursements made to health care providers, she said. In not explaining that, he appeared "weaker," she said.
"He could have stated that much more clearly," she said. "And he didn't."
But debates are as much about style as they are substance. While many in Northern Virginia may be familiar with wonky phrases like Simpson-Bowles or Dodd-Frank, they may not carry as much weight with the average American.
Romney said clearly, simply, several times that "I don't want to kill jobs" as both men played to the middle class.
"Middle-income Americans are getting crushed," Romney said, calling increases in utility, food, gas and health care costs "the economy tax" and laid the blame at Obama's feet.
The president, in turn, said Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, refused to lay out specifics. He said time and again that Romney would implement trillions in tax cuts, primarily to the wealthiest individuals — and that Romney wouldn't say what would be cut in turn. The president said Romney's plan would cripple education and Medicare. And he accused Romney of wanting to transform the latter into a voucher program.
Under Romney's definition, "There are millionaires and billionaires who are considered small businesses," Obama said. "Donald Trump is a small business. And I don't think he likes to be considered small in anything."
Romney responded, "I'm not looking to cut massive taxes" and "I will not reduce the taxes paid by higher-income Americans" — lines that seem to be the antithesis of what Republican primary voters wanted to hear earlier this year.
Romney did drive home a conservative line about cutting funding to PBS, and then quickly reassured the moderator, PBS' Jim Lehrer, "I love Big Bird." Sesame Street's iconic character was soon trending on Twitter nationwide.
"Fantastic performance. Even more pumped to take back 1600 Penn.," Ludmilla Savelieff,a Georgetown University law student, posted on Facebook. "Once I'm back in town, I'm phone banking and door knocking — let's do this!"
The Romney campaign announced that it had made phone contact with more than 3.5 million Virginia voters on Tuesday, a day before the debate. Pete Snyder, who heads the GOP's Virginia effort, said at the time even Northern Virginia was in play.
The Arlington crowd laughed every time the president used Romney's health care reform in Massachusetts against the former governor.
On Medicaid reform, Obama said he wasn't comfortable with the term "entitlements," because "the name itself implies some sort of dependency." That was perhaps the closest the president came to reminding people about Romney's well-known "47 percent" line.
Not everyone was looking for drama.
Romney seemed the "nervous CEO," while Obama came across as "smart" and "directive," said Lloyd Wolf of Arlington.
"The commentators are clueless," he added. "They're paid to be clueless. They make instant opinions. They have no more validity than a barroom drunk."
Northern Virginia Congressman Jim Moran watched the debate from King Street Blues in Kingstowne.
"I doubt many minds will change over the debate," he said. "I think it was a relative standstill, which probably helps President Obama, because he has proven himself to at least 51 percent of the electorate that he's trying hard and moving us in the right direction. There were no gaffes or knock-out punches on either side."
Heading into the debate, Obama held just over a 3-point lead in the polls, according to the latest Real Clear Politics average.
Mark Cattell of Arlington said that meant all the president needed to do was "keep it within the 40 yard lines."
"I don't think either one of them landed a colossal blow," he said later. "And I'm biased, but because of that, I think Obama wins. Because in a draw, the president wins. He made the case for four more years."
Patch editors Andre Taylor in Falls Church, Shaun Courtney in Georgetown, Leslie Perales in Herndon and James Cullum in Kingstowne contributed to this report.