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Politics

Five Reasons Why Obama Lost the Debate

A weak night by the president gives Mitt Romney new life in the race for the White House.

Mitt Romney was the clear winner in Wednesday night's presidential debate.

The Republican came across as confident, in control and ready to take over the White House. But in the end, it wasn't so much what the former Massachusetts governor said or did that gave him a second wind at a key point in the election as it was what President Obama didn't say and didn't do during the 90-minute showdown.

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Here are five key reasons why Obama came up short:

1. He started slow. Does anybody remember a single line from his opening statement? Going first, the president had a chance to frame the evening, put Romney on the defensive and hammer home some of the key differences between the candidates. He didn't do any of that.

2. He repeatedly let Romney off the hook. There are compelling counterarguments to be made to Romney's insistence that Obama gutted Medicare and that Romney won't cut taxes by trillions of dollars. But Obama didn't make them. Romney kept hammering away at those details and Obama kept refusing to hit back, so some folks no doubt take those claims as gospel now.

On Medicare, all Obama had to do was point out that Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, includes the same cuts in his budget. On tax cuts, Obama merely needed to say: "That's not what you said when you were trolling for conservative votes in the primaries. Is this another flip-flop, designed to trick independents into thinking you're a moderate?" Instead, Obama held his fire.

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Aides say Obama was being presidential and staying above the fray. But he didn't come across that way. At times he seemed smug. At other times he seemed unfocused. The only thing that kept Obama from being the biggest loser on stage was the presence of moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS. I've been covering presidential debates since 1984, and Lehrer's was by far the most inept moderating performance I've witnessed.

3. Obama looked tired and unprepared. Romney came across as relaxed and ready to engage. Obama stared at the lectern and fidgeted. None of that is relevant to how a person performs as president, but in a close race, everything matters. Richard Nixon lost debates -- and probably the presidency -- because he seemed less at ease than John Kennedy in front of television cameras in 1960. And Al Gore lost a debate 40 years later because he repeatedly sighed while George W. Bush was responding.

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4. Obama didn't live up to his reputation as a grand orator. In fact, he didn't come close, delivering the worst public performance of any I've seen during his time as senator, presidential candidate and commander in chief. He acted as though he led by 20 points and could just stand there and take Romney's punches. But his lead is narrow in national polls, and it will likely get narrower in postdebate surveys. Left unchecked, that momentum may give Romney new life in key battleground states where he now trails in the race for 270 electoral votes.

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5. Finally, Obama finished even slower than he started. Near the end, Romney essentially stuck out his jaw and invited Obama to knock him out with one punch. That moment came during a discussion about the role of government. Referring to Obama's budget priorities, Romney said you can tell a lot about a guy based on where he puts his money. As soon as Romney went there, I figured he had lost the debate, and with it a last best chance at the election. Here's all Obama needed to say: "I agree, Mitt. You can tell a lot about a guy by where he puts his money, and you put yours in the Cayman Islands and in Swiss bank accounts. If you outsource your private life, what will you do as president?"

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Game over.

Instead, inexplicably, Obama held his tongue. He similarly failed to bring up many other points that his campaign has used so effectively against Romney: 47%. Bain Capital. Romney's decision to release only two years of tax returns.

Let's see what the polls say in the next week or so. But from where I sit, it certainly feels as though Obama surrendered ground without a fight Wednesday night. One more debate misstep -- by Obama in the two events left with Romney or by Vice President Joe Biden in his single showdown with Ryan -- or a particularly bad economic report, and Romney could have a strong shot at winning a race that many of his fellow Republicans had already written off.

The importance of Wednesday night cannot be overstated. Time will tell whether it was a wakeup call for the president or the beginning of the end of his presidency.

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