The presidential debate hyped as an exercise in meticulously planned zingers had little zing.
And President Obama was doubly zinger-less Wednesday night in Denver.
He was flat. He meandered more than Republican Mitt Romney.
Obama used lots of numbers. But it sounded like a calculus lesson. It wasn’t the 2+2=4 math that proves a point during a debate.
And there was a more important figure he missed: 47.
That’s the percentage of non income-taxpaying citizens whom Romney seemed to denigrate in a recently released hidden-video, which played right into the Democrats’ narrative about making Romney the out-of-touch rich man.
But Obama never mentioned it.
And when the debate started, it was Romney talking about the little guy.
Romney was the phrase-coiner fretting about “trickle-down government.” Romney was the great communicator, starting off by congratulating the president on his 20-year wedding anniversary with his wife, Michelle.
“I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here — here with me,” Romney said.
Ordered to be silent, the crowd couldn’t help itself. People laughed. Obama smiled.
By night’s end, though, liberals from HBOs Bill Maher to MSNBC’s Ed Schultz were in head-shaking disbelief.
It was the multi-millionaire Romney who sounded like feel-your-pain Democrat Bill Clinton talking about the struggles of everyday folks.
“I was in Dayton, Ohio, and a woman grabbed my arm,” Romney said. “And she said, ‘I’ve been out of work since May. Can you help me?"
Romney said another woman with a baby in her arms told his wife recently: “my husband has had four jobs in three years, part-time jobs. He’s lost his most recent job. And we’ve now just lost our home. Can you help us?"
Romney said he’d take the country down “a different path.”
Then Romney counted out the “five basic parts” of his plan promising (1) energy independence, (2) more Latin American trade and a get tough policy on China (3) “the best schools in the world” (4) a balanced budget and (5) becoming a “champion” for small business.
When it came for Obama, the simple counting sounded difficult.
“First, we’ve got to improve our education system,” he said. But he then lost the thread. There was no “second” and no “third.”
Obama hopped from point to point and number to number. There was an explanation of Race to the Top and the “reforms in 46 states.” Then there are his plans to “hire another 100,000 new math and science teachers, and create 2 million more slots in our community colleges so that people can get trained for the jobs that are out there right now.”
So Romney won on style. He was on point. He ticked off his plans in one-two-three-four fashion. That matters. It helped Herman Cain in the Republican primaries when he touted the benefits of his 9-9-9 plan. And it was a key to Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s 2010 campaign centered around his 7-7-7 plan.
Romney also looked more comfortable and looked at Obama as if they were at, well, a debate. His campaign had said he’d be armed with “zingers,” but Romney’s performance came across as more spontaneous and natural than that.
Romney looked at the camera more often as well, seeming to peer into the living rooms of those few undecided or persuadable voters who ultimately will decide a close election.
Still, on that point of the persuadable voters, no one probably won.
The debate seemed so wonky and in-the-weeds at times that a voter who hasn’t made up his or her mind on policy probably needs a little more debate-watching. Neither man looked bad or terrible. One just came across as more prepared.
And because he trails in the polls, Romney needed this night more than Obama. And it showed.
Republicans loved what Romney said (except when he expressed the need for regulations). Democrats liked Obama hammering away at health-insurance companies.
Obama described his $716 billion in Medicare savings as bad for insurers’ profits and good for seniors. Romney said it was just bad for seniors and interfered with the doctor-patient relationship.
Obama wanted to play up how Romney wanted to turn Medicare into a voucher system for future retirees, for those who are currently younger than 55. But he never insisted that Romney provide details on how the plan would work.
Obama tried that, with limited success, earlier in the debate while talking taxes.
Obama pointed out that Romney wants to lower marginal tax rates across the board by 20 percent and increase defense spending. That could cost about $7 trillion, the president said.
Romney said the plan wouldn’t add to the deficit because the economy would improve and he’d eliminate tax exemptions to make up for the difference.
But Obama pointed out that most nonpartisan tax experts say that Romney’s math doesn’t add up. And Romney wouldn’t say what tax exemptions he’d eliminate anyway.
“For 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan,” Obama said. “And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is: ‘Never mind.’"
Obama repeated the performance later when he pointed out that Romney hadn’t specified how he’d tackle Wall Street reform differently.
“I think the American people have to ask themselves,” Obama said, “is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good?
But Romney made sure to adhere to specifics when it came to the benchmarks of Obama’s time in office.
“What we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working,” Romney said.
“And the proof of that is 23 million people out of work. The proof of that is 1 out of 6 people in poverty. The proof of that is we’ve gone from 32 million on food stamps to 47 million on food stamps. The proof of that is that 50 percent of college graduates this year can’t find work.”
If Romney can keep repeating numbers and a performance like that, there’s a better chance these days that Obama will be the one looking for a job.