03:34 - Source: CNN
Who won the presidential debate?

Story highlights

Contributors weigh in on how the candidates did in first presidential debate

Reihan Salam: Romney scores by talking bread-and-butter issues to middle-class voters

Paul Begala: Obama looked for a real debate but encountered the Etch a Sketch man

Tim Stanley: Romney was on fire, enthusiastic and able to make his case effectively

(CNN) —  

President Barack Obama met his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Wednesday night in Denver for the first of three presidential debates. CNN contributors and analysts offered these assessments of the evening:

Reihan Salam: Romney scores, but does he have time to turn around campaign?

Mitt Romney pressed the reset button last night on his campaign. He presented himself as a compassionate centrist, deeply concerned about the fate of the unemployed and low-income households struggling to climb the economic ladder in a stagnant economy.

Reihan Salam
Courtesy Reihan Salam
Reihan Salam

At every opportunity, he made reference to kitchen-table issues such as the difficulty of securing a mortgage and the rising cost of medical insurance, gasoline and electricity. Had Romney been running this campaign since securing the Republican presidential nomination, it is easy to imagine that he would be in a much stronger position in the polls.

What remains to be seen is whether the larger public will embrace Romney’s reset.

  • Did you miss the first presidential debate? You can watch the full event online on CNN.com.

With just a few weeks to go before the presidential election, and with Democrats gaining momentum in key swing states, it is possible that the Romney campaign simply doesn’t have enough time to change the narrative of the campaign. And of course President Barack Obama will have two more debates in which to regain his footing and to take the fight to Romney.

Going forward, it is important that Romney capitalize on his strong debate performance by constantly connecting his campaign agenda to the challenges facing low- and middle-income households. Obama, meanwhile, should prepare for a vigorous Republican case against his foreign policy, which might prove a vulnerability in light of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East.

Reihan Salam, a CNN contributor, is a columnist for Reuters; a writer for the National Review’s “The Agenda” blog; a policy adviser for e21, a nonpartisan economic research group; and co-author of “Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

Ilyse Hogue
Ilyse Hogue

Ilyse Hogue: Romney’s strategy? Lie quickly

In late 2009, freshman congressman Alan Grayson made national headlines when he short-handed the GOP health care plan with the moniker “Die Quickly.” Tonight, Mitt Romney showed his strategy for victory is to “Lie Quickly.” Romney spouted inaccuracies, obfuscations and flat-out lies with deft and speed that left moderator Jim Lehrer looking and sounding windblown.

Much time and ink will be spent on the style of the debate: Did the president look too professorial? Did you hear Romney’s joke about the Obama anniversary? Did Obama look annoyed? Did Romney look flustered? The ability to connect with the American people is important. We want leaders who we like, with whom we feel comfortable, who we think will be on our side. But style is ephemeral and after the courting period, we’re stuck with substance for years to come.

So, let’s get a few things straight. Romney’s tax plan will raise taxes on the middle class, Obama is not cutting Medicare, Obama has cut the deficit, Dodd-Frank did not designate banks too big to fail and the Romney/Ryan plan will put pressure on teachers ones and compromise our children’s education. All of these fabrications may have sounded OK coming out of the mouth of an uneven but aggressive challenger. But, as the president said in the debate, Romney’s big, bold idea tonight was “never mind.” The American people deserve someone who minds.

Ilyse Hogue is co-director of Friends of Democracy, a super PAC aimed at electing candidates who champion campaign finance reform. She is the former director of political advocacy and communications for MoveOn.org and has been a senior strategist to Democratic and progressive groups. She is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Timothy Stanley: Romney was on fire

Was Barack Obama given debate training by Rick Perry? Just like the Texas governor did back in the Republican primaries, Obama spent the debate looking tired and distracted. His body language was all wrong – often directing answers at the moderator rather than his opponent and flashing detached smiles that had a ghost of Richard Nixon about them.

He defended his record rather than go on the attack, and there were no stand-out phrases or moments of vision. During the segment on Obamacare, he should have opened by pointing out that Romney supported a similar reform when he was governor of Massachusetts. Instead, he saved this for a throwaway line and took too long to return to it. The one character issue Romney is really weak on is his record of u-turns. But Obama seemed unwilling to exploit it.

By contrast, Romney was on fire. He was enthusiastic and looked like he’d have happily gone on talking beyond midnight. His zingers might have been pre-prepared, but they were good – conservative talking heads will all be talking about “trickle-down government” for the next few days.

Importantly, he was centrist (note that he denied wanting to cut education funding and stressed his plan to reduce tax loopholes for the rich) and avoided the culture war issues (no abortion or gay marriage). Given that polls show America was expecting Obama to win big, Romney did himself a lot of favors by delivering the superior performance. All he has to do now is melt the hearts of Ohio’s voters, and this contest will become truly competitive again.

Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan.”

Donna Brazile
Getty Images
Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile: Joe Biden, get ready for a workout next week

The first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is now in the books. I can say one thing about this debate: it was neither memorable, nor well-moderated, nor much of a debate. Jim Lehrer is a respected newsman, but he lost control early and allowed the candidates to just rehash their respective talking points.

Governor Romney attempted to dictate tempo and direction. President Obama in order to “stay in the game” had to also ignore the time requirements.

Governor Romney came prepared and brought the same style to the debate that won him the nomination: aggressive, confident, CEO-sympathetic, full of generalities and with his usual Etch A Sketch regard for the truth. I’ll let the fact checkers do their job.

President Obama came prepared to discuss both the past and the future. But his style was more reserved and cautious. He was playing “prevent defense,” and it showed. He spent most of the night defending his record, the context of which Romney gleefully ignored. As a result, the president was not able to draw the needed clear contrasts between their plans, philosophies and personalities.

Romney will get the expected “bounce” from this debate. He needed to alter the trajectory of the contest and he won points simply for attacking the president, but not truly defining what he will do differently. He told us that there was another path forward.

Sadly, all his policy proposals point to a U-turn back to the failed policies that got us in this mess in the first place.

Joe Biden, take it from here. Get some rest. Get ready for a workout next week.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease.” She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

Paul Begala: Obama debated the Etch A Sketch man

There were no knockout punches in the first presidential debate, but Mitt Romney landed more jabs. The problem for Romney is, jabs alone won’t win the title for him.

The Romney campaign told people they wanted to create “moments.” There were not a lot of them, but Romney hammered the incumbent, attacking the Obama subsidies for clean energy, the alleged $716 billion “cut” in Medicare and claiming Obama would raise taxes on small business.

President Obama never mentioned that Romney pays a lower tax rate on his megamillions than many middle-class Americans do on their hard-earned wages. He did not challenge Romney to release more of his tax returns, as Romney’s father did. He never said Romney has insulted 47% of Americans by suggesting they’re freeloaders. And when Romney said he was not aware of tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas, the president did not point out that Romney’s company has been the Hank Aaron of shipping jobs overseas.

He never mentioned that under Romney, Massachusetts was 47th in job creation. Most frustrating for me were the two words never uttered by our president: Bain Capital.

Obama seemed frustrated by Romney at first, especially as Romney seemed to disavow the tax cuts for the rich he has campaigned on for years.

Obama is a man who deeply wants to believe that politics is on the level. It seems to me he prepared to debate a man who agreed. Trouble is, he debated Etch A Sketch man, who promptly ran away from his $5 trillion tax cut for the rich.

In the days after the debate, journalists, fact checkers and policy wonks will have a field day with Romney’s desperate desire to deny his own tax policy, but Romney has always been a man who will say or do anything in the moment.

Later in the debate, Obama got the better of Romney, as the discussion moved to Obamacare and Medicare. Romney returned to his default argument that Obama tried to cut $716 billion from Medicare, but Obama nailed him to the wall by noting that health insurance premiums are growing at historically low rates and that Romney’s running mate has a plan that would end Medicare as we know it.

There is no doubt Romney had a good night. But I strongly doubt whether it was good enough.

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, is senior adviser to Priorities USA Action, the biggest super PAC favoring President Barack Obama’s re-election. Begala was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

Maria Cardona
Maria Cardona

Maria Cardona: Obama should have challenged Romney

The first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was fascinating, but this wasn’t any knock-down, drag-out fight.

Romney was very prepared and surprisingly personable. The chatter is that he won because, as many who were playing the expectations game said all along, just standing on the stage with President Obama and being able to convince Americans he was a human being would put him in a different light. And he needed that desperately.

President Obama, perhaps not wanting to appear too aggressive, maintained his presidential demeanor, was great on substance and spoke to the middle class. His move to look directly at the camera was deft, as were his words about where we have been and what he would continue to do to fight for families, students and seniors. But he missed some key opportunities.

President Obama didn’t challenge Romney on some important issues that would have underscored his strengths and highlighted Romney’s deficits with the common man.

President Obama never brought up the “47 percent.” He should have. He didn’t fight hard enough to correct Romney on his accusation that the president had taken $716 billion out of Medicare and cut benefits. He didn’t challenge Romney’s dismal record as governor of Massachusetts. He never detailed the rescue of the auto industry that Romney wanted to go bankrupt. He didn’t challenge Romney’s view that the housing industry should hit bottom.

The president did do a great job at pointing out that Romney essentially made up another tax plan since he threw the one he and Ryan had talked about for months under the bus in front of 50 million people. But even there he didn’t go after Romney hard enough.

What does this mean? In addition to the fact-checkers working overtime, we now have a real race and the next two debates will have even greater weight.

And be assured that a different Barack Obama will show up next time.

Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist, a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Courtesy San Diego Union Tribune
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Ruben Navarrette: A matchup that only a policy wonk could love

Wednesday night’s debate was a pretty clear victory for Mitt Romney. But that’s only because, while he came off badly at times, President Barack Obama came off worse. I know we have a job opening to fill, but is it too late to ask for more applicants?

With a few exceptions here and there, neither Romney nor Obama seemed like he was ready to do battle. We know they can fight. Look at what Romney did to his primary opponents – Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum. Remember how Obama went after Hillary Clinton, dismissing her as “likeable enough?”

What about those one or two zingers we’re always told debaters have tucked away in their back pockets, ready to spring on their opponents – “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” “There you go again,” etc? There was none of that. Instead, there were lots of facts and figures, in this matchup that only a policy wonk could love.

The candidate were so nice to each other. They even stayed on stage after the debate was over to mingle, as President and Mrs. Obama exchanged pleasantries with the Romney Brady Bunch.

When you listen to what these two men say about one another on the stump, or in media interviews, it’s clear that they don’t like each other. But there was no trace of that in this debate. And I’m not sure how helpful that was, in terms of letting each man show flashes of that one quality essential to leadership: passion.

Next time, let’s hope they engage each other more directly, go on the attack and do a better job of drawing contrasts. Let’s have fewer pie charts and more fireworks. After all, in a forum like this, half the job is showing why you should be president; the other half is showing why your opponent shouldn’t be.

Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson: Sound, fury and still no specifics from Romney

If you were looking for a knockout punch, there wasn’t one.

If you were hoping for a couple of zingers to remember, then you were likely disappointed.

If you went to bed wondering “what was President Obama doing?” then allow me to explain: He was being himself.

Ever since he came onto the national scene at the Democratic National Convention way back in 2004, he has consistently of the shown that he’s a very thoughtful, introspective man. Some like to use the word “professsorial” as if there was something wrong with being intelligent.

Sure, fire and brimstone can move a crowd but when the embers cool, you have got to have substance. And that is what this debate was about – substance. True, there were openings during the debate that seem prime for a “47%” or “Bain Capital” line, but the president opted to stick to a script that hewed primarily to one thing: the lack of details in Mitt Romney’s plans.

Did that approach work? Well, it depends on what the desired results were.

It certainly didn’t fire up his base; in fact, considering how good Romney was – and there were definitely moments in which he appeared presidential – I’m sure the president’s approach was unnerving to his supporters. But the president never seem unnerved himself.

He would just write down some notes, smile and ask for Romney for details. What would you cut? What parts of Dodd-Frank would you keep? What would you replace Obamacare with? Details that Romney failed to provide for 90 minutes.

So yes, Romney did better than expected but he didn’t give voters what they need: the specifics of his plans. He said things would be better with him, but he didn’t explain how.

Which loopholes would he close? Which deductions would he remove? Which cuts would he make?

This is why the president would calmly, methodically talk about the mathematical impossibility of Romney’s tax plan, explain why he made the decisions he did, take some notes, smile and think. Like he’s always done.

He didn’t knock Romney out as many had hoped. Instead he put a spotlight on him so voters could see just how little substance there really is. Romney made a big deal about cutting PBS funding as a way to rope in spending. He didn’t mention that doing so represents a saving of one one-hundredth of 1% of the nation’s budget. Nice work there Mitt. … I feel better already.

LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs

Alex Castellanos
Alex Castellanos

Alex Castellanos: Romney brings it

We learned an important lesson in the first 2012 general election debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama: Presidential candidates should never debate on their wedding anniversary.

Barack Obama’s weak performance set up the best night of Mitt Romney’s campaign, a victory Romney needed to keep the race close and keep contributions flowing. Romney won the night.

President Obama indulged in the weakest possible strategy: defense. It is a strategy that does not score points but allows your opponent to do so. Over the next few days, the bright minds on Obama’s campaign will have to explain Obama’s intended plan of attack because the president himself gave us no evidence of it. As my CNN panel-mate, the almost always wrong but eternally entertaining James Carville explained tonight, Barack Obama debated like a man who didn’t want to be there.

For the first part of the debate, Obama was impatient and condescending, as if he did not understand why he would be required to prove his obvious superiority. Halfway through the evening, he caught his mistake and began to smile instead of glare and treat Romney more respectfully. It may be that Obama’s repeated muttering and groaning under his breath will become the equivalent of Al Gore’s sighing. It cannot be long before someone strings all of Obama’s grunts and harrumphs together and it goes viral.

As Romney took command, Obama seemed to find his opponent’s aggressiveness surprising. It was good news for Romney that the moderator demonstrated total control of the debate. The even better news was that the moderator was, effectively, Romney. Jim Lehrer let the two gladiators go at each other with minimal interruption and created one of the best debates on record. The nation got to see two grown men debating the issues respectfully but forcefully. That’s what debates used to be and still should be. A more self-important performance by Lehrer might not have permitted Romney to demonstrate that he had the strength to take on the leader of the free world and command the night.

Romney did not just win on style; he won on substance. He punched through with a simple, clear and direct five-point plan to grow the economy. He presented it as an alternative to President Obama’s failed expansion of what he called “trickle-down government.” Now we know what Romney is for and what he is against. That’s the beginning of a narrative that can explain why the next four years under Romney would be better than the last four under Obama.

Over the next few days, Team Obama will try move on from this debate, acknowledging that their candidate didn’t take it seriously enough, was too busy keeping the economy paralyzed and promising that he’ll be better next time. But Round 1 goes to Mitt Romney. Taking on a sitting president mano-a-mano, without being intimidated by the man or the office, takes brass. Mitt Romney displayed that tonight.

Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor, is a Republican consultant and the co-founder of Purple Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @alexcast.

Julian Zelizer
Larry Levanti
Julian Zelizer

Julian Zelizer: The “truthiness” debate

This was a debate that will keep the fact checkers busy for days. Each candidate tried to avoid any big mistakes and to undercut the basic claims of his opponent, suggesting to voters in the swing states that what you see is not what you will get.

Both men showed that they were in command of the major policies, with the debate at times sounding more like a discussion at a Washington think tank than the kind of rough-and-tumble campaign scenes voters are accustomed to.

President Barack Obama used much of his time to hammer away at Romney’s proposed fiscal policies, claiming that the former governor is really a champion of trickle-down economics that would benefit the rich and do little to curb the deficit. Obama sought to connect himself to President Bill Clinton and the booming economy of the 1990s, and to tie Mitt Romney to President George W. Bush and the financial collapse of 2008.

Romney, while insisting that his programs would help the middle class, went on the offensive by questioning the veracity of the president. At one point, comparing Obama to his sons, he claimed that the president was misrepresenting his policies and spreading information that is not true. Hammering away at the state of the economy, Romney made his basic argument clear when, recounting what he heard from a friend, he said to Obama, “You don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers.”

Overall, this didn’t seem like a game changer. Romney probably benefited the most as he seemed energized, engaged and brought the debate back to the laggard economy, away from his gaffes. Obama, playing defense and waiting for Romney to make mistakes, was able to reiterate his basic campaign theme that Romney is a step backward toward 2008 and that he is someone who will protect basic programs that will help the middle class.

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and of the new book “Governing America.”

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Bob Greene: Two smart men take on substance

“You’ve been president four years.”

Had Barack Obama, during the autumn of 2008, been able to look four years into the future and somehow seen someone, accurately, saying those words to him in 2012, he undoubtedly would have been thrilled.

But on the Denver debate stage Wednesday night, when Mitt Romney spoke those words to Obama, they sounded like an admonition.

Viewers hoping for crudely hurled insults, for zingers meant not just to sting but to wound, were likely disappointed. For years, the public has complained that presidential politics have become too petty and trivial; the plea has been: “Why can’t the candidates talk about serious issues?”

Well, that’s what the public got. The phrase “Dodd-Frank” was spoken so many times that you’d have half-thought it was an attack-ad punchline, not the name of a bill dedicated to Wall Street reform. Regardless of your political preferences, what you saw Wednesday night was two smart men talking about things they consider important to the country’s future. Was it at times dull? Maybe. Was the dullness, in an unexpected way, kind of refreshing? You can make the argument that it was.

About 20 minutes into the debate, during some byplay between Obama, Romney and moderator Jim Lehrer, Romney said:

“It’s fun, isn’t it?”

The kind of policy-oriented talk that dominated the proceedings probably really is fun for Obama and Romney. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. One of them will be running the country for the next four years. Seriousness may not be scintillating, but it can be reassuring to witness it once in a while.

Bob Greene is a CNN Contributor and a bestselling author whose 25 books include “Late Edition: A Love Story”; “Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War”; and “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen.”

Hilary Rosen
Hilary Rosen

Hilary Rosen: Romney’s revisionist history

Honestly, I think I am more impressed with President Barack Obama tonight than I have ever been, because if I were on that stage I would not have been able to resist screaming at Mitt Romney for his repeated revisionist history on his own positions, for his distortion of the president’s record and for the smirk on his face while he was doing it.

On taxes: Romney said that he wasn’t going to cut taxes because he’d close loopholes, but he wouldn’t say which loopholes he’d close. And then he denied that the tax cut extension contributes to the deficit.

On health care: Romney disingenuously suggested that he has a plan that will provide people with the same good benefits of Obamacare. He doesn’t have such a plan. Romney says his plan deals with pre-existing conditions, but it would only keep insurers from taking away coverage, doing nothing for Americans with pre-existing conditions who are not able to get an insurance plan. As a result, 72 million people would be unable to obtain insurance, more than if Obamacare had never been passed.

And finally on the issue of regulation, Romney denies that repealing the Dodd-Frank banking rules will allow the banks free rein again over the economy in a dangerous way. When the country was in an economic crisis created by risky lending practices, Romney was against reining banks in. And now he pledges to repeal the fixes that the president supported to make sure they don’t happen again.

The president laid out his views on education much more directly and effectively than Romney did as well, when he talked about the need for smaller class sizes and increasing programs at community colleges, particularly those aimed at filling work force needs. Romney essentially said he likes teachers (does anyone not like teachers?), but gave no further specifics.

Romney did have the president on the defensive a few times tonight, but that is likely because he was surprised that Romney was talking so easily out of both sides of his mouth. The important task in the next day will be with the fact checkers, vetting the things that were said tonight. And I am hoping they do their job.

Obama laid out the basic facts about the economy and health care and his record tonight. He was calm, thoughtful and respectful. That is what the American people need to be able count on with a president. Romney did not seemed trustworthy tonight, given how obviously he obfuscated his own positions and dodged specifics.

Romney needed a game changer tonight, and he didn’t get it. So when a debate ends with a neutral, Obama wins. On to the next one!

Hilary Rosen, a CNN contributor, is a Democratic political strategist and former chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.