President likely to alter his strategy in next debate

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Take one: A confident challenger meets a subdued president.

The question is what happens next.

Initial impressions out of the leadoff general election debate Wednesday night held that Mitt Romney had asserted himself against an unexpectedly reserved President Barack Obama. Academic observers interviewed Thursday agreed the Republican nominee had outperformed expectations, but their predictions extended little further than a bet that the president would be counseled to show enthusiasm at the next match-up Oct. 16.

"The expectation was that since Romney was not going to be quite so effective, and Obama is regarded as the great orator, he himself fell into that trap," said Gerald Shuster, who teaches presidential rhetoric/political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "As a result, when Romney started with such assertiveness and such direct responses, with such credibility, he was taken totally off guard."

Throw the answers themselves in with body language -- as when Mr. Romney consistently looked at Mr. Obama, while the president more often gazed toward the moderator and camera -- and Mr. Shuster declared the debate, given the expectations, won by the Republican challenger.

While J. Michael Hogan, director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State University, found Mr. Obama a bit subdued, he didn't chalk up the debate as a loss for the president. He said he didn't think there were any disasters that will haunt him in the campaign's remaining weeks. By going light on aggression, Mr. Hogan said, the president avoided turning off the middle-of-the-line, potentially undecided voters who dislike political nastiness.

But the Denver debate might not have electrified that audience, he said: "It was a very detailed, policy-oriented debate. I suspect a lot of people were just bored with it more than anything, particularly low-interest voters."

The extended discussions of topics like the budget deficit and Medicare funding -- "these things that are not the real sexy issues" -- made for a show that might have been more enjoyable for political enthusiasts, he said, than for the voter just tuning in.

Students at Hofstra University, the site of the upcoming second debate, have heard much about the presidential campaign, but some who discussed Tuesday's debate with Hofstra political science associate professor Rosanna Perotti, said they ended up tuning out the deluge of figures and instead watching how the candidates carried themselves.

"I think that most Americans watching, or a good many Americans watching, are in the same boat," Ms. Perotti said. "They feel that it's public officials' job to be attentive to the details. They're just trying to determine whether or not this candidate is trustworthy and is presidential."

By that measure, she said, Mr. Romney got the job done. Mr. Shuster also said he showed leadership.

"He managed to demonstrate, 'Hey, I am a corporate head. I can make decisions and I can give a rationale for the decisions I've made,' " he said.

Mr. Romney had practice debating throughout the primary season, a process from which Mr. Obama is four years removed, noted Gordon Mitchell, associate professor and chairman of the communication department at Pitt.

"Think about what he's been doing in that same time period," Mr. Mitchell said. "He's been sitting in meetings where advisers have probably been sometimes disagreeing with him, but always prefaced with 'Respectfully Mr. President, I must disagree.' "

There are historical precedents for sitting presidents under-performing in their first re-election debate. Mr. Hogan pointed to Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mr. Shuster compared Mr. Obama's performance Tuesday night to one of George W. Bush's debates.

"In subsequent debates, they made him take a more direct, focused approach on his opponent," he said. "It was clearly a flaw in the first debate."

Mr. Mitchell, who coached debate at Pitt for 17 years, said Mr. Romney succeeded in appearing presidential, while he rated the president's performance a B or B-minus.

"But there's an asterisk on that grade," he said. "He's going to get a chance to take the test again. And if he does well on the second or third debate, then I think he will be able to recoup a lot of the ground he may have lost to Romney."


Karen Langley: or 1-717-787-2141.


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