5 Key Takeaways from the Denver Debate

Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

DENVER -- The first presidential debate Wednesday night lacked a "defining moment" that will mark its place in the history books. But Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney still managed to take advantage of his time there to go on the offensive against President Barack Obama and attempt to improve his standing with voters. Did it work? Depends on who you ask. What is clear, is that even without a defining moment, there were a few key exchanges worth noting.

1. Obama: "Jim, I -- you may want to move onto another topic."

That line from President Obama came after Mitt Romney spent the crucial opening minutes of the debate putting the president on the defensive during a discussion about taxes and economic growth.

The Republican ticked off his 5-point job creation plan and quickly critiqued the president's first-term record on job creation and deficit reduction without getting too personal or sounding capricious.

"I'm concerned that the path that we're on has just been unsuccessful. The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more -- if you will, trickle-down government -- would work," Romney said.

The president responded by attacking Romney's tax plan, saying it would cut taxes on the rich and for failing to explain how he would offset it so that it would not add to the budget deficit.

"It is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class," Obama said. "It's math. It's arithmetic."

Neither candidate landed a crushing blow during the opening exchange, and both candidates used their own version of the facts (as ABC News recounts here) to buttress their points.

But it was evident that Romney appeared more energized and presented a more direct message to the millions of voters watching at home. While Obama was able to counterpunch and poke holes in Romney's tax plan, he struggled at the outset to explain how his own plan would help spark growth and often found himself in the weeds explaining his policies, such as his healthcare law.

And as evidenced by Obama's plea to moderator Jim Lehrer, Romney felt more comfortable speaking about taxes and the deficit.

"Excuse me. Excuse me. Just so everybody understands, we're way over our first 15 minutes," Lehrer said.

"It's fun, isn't it?" Romney replied.

2. Romney to Jim Lehrer: "I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too."

One of Romney's central problems is that he often appears stiff and aloof on the campaign trail. That's why it was notable how comfortable he appeared on the debate stage.

While the debate was mostly bereft of the so-called "zingers" many had anticipated to consume the discussion, Romney had some lines that made him more human that he often appears.

He used the above line when explaining why he would cut funding for public broadcasting as part of his effort to shrink the budget deficit (although they account for a minuscule portion of federal spending).

Romney also landed this blow against Obama after he said the Republican candidate would cut funding for student loans and even implied, in a meandering way, that Romney can't relate to the recipients of those loans.

"Mr. President, you're entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts," he said.

After congratulating Obama on his 20th wedding anniversary, which is tonight, he even made a funny joke, a rare occurrence for him in public.

"I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here -- here with me," he told the president.

That's a far cry from betting Rick Perry $10,000 on national TV.

3. Jim Lehrer: "Let's go through some specifics"

If you were looking for an epic clash of personalities, or even "zingers," this debate wasn't for you. The debate centered around policies concerning pocketbook issues.

While voters and members of the media have long clamored for a serious debate on the economic issues, the back-and-forth became dry at certain points and the candidates often struggled to effectively connect the policy debate to how it would effect people's lives.

The candidates avoided talking about pivotal campaign trail moments (or "gaffes") connected to the economy, such as Romney's "47 percent" comment.

The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta put it best in a tweet: "Am I at a Brookings seminar?"

4. What They Didn't Talk About

Voters received an in-depth discussion of policy issues related to the economy, but a raft of other domestic issues were completely absent from the debate.

The Washington Post's Rachel Weiner flagged housing, economic stimulus, and the debate over a grand bargain on debt-reduction as issues that got the short shrift.

But one issue was left completely untouched: immigration. Obama and Romney uttered the word "immigration" or "immigrant" zero times during the course of the 90-minute debate. Moderator Jim Lehrer never asked about it.

The subject has been hotly debated on the campaign trail, especially in lieu of Romney's decision not to deport immigrants granted deferred action by Obama if he is elected. And many have clamored for Romney to further explain his "permanent solution" for undocumented youth.

We didn't get that to hear that discussion tonight.

5. Obama to Jim Lehrer: "You've done a great job."

Social media did not agree with that assessment of the veteran PBS anchor and debate moderator Jim Lehrer.

While some praised the debate for its open format, Twitter was up in arms about Lehrer's inability to control the time limits of the debate and ask the candidates more specific questions.

A fake Twitter account was set up in the middle of the debate for the 78-year-old, @SilentJimLehrer, and it already has more than 8,000 followers.

Lehrer did struggle to enforce time limits and control the discussion, but tonight was a case study of how difficult it is to moderate a presidential debate, especially in the social media era where every moment is scrutinized publicly in real time.

If you need further proof that Twitter dominated discussion of the debate, this is what was being passed around by many users.

***

Romney acquitted himself well here in Denver, establishing himself as a formidable debate opponent to the president and giving himself a chance to shift the race. But at the end of the day Democrats and Republicans in the spin room agreed that one debate won't decide the outcome of the election.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), said Romney clearly won the debate, but added "this is a process, not a one-night deal."

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