THIS WAS A debate for the green-eyeshade crowd. If you tuned in Wednesday night to see President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney offer inspiring visions for the future, you heard more numbers than you did paeans to America.
The bottom line on engagement with an American public not five weeks from Election Day: Romney was alert, energized and confident. Obama slumped his shoulders, smiled mostly to himself and for some reason kept staring down. He was that guy at the meeting who's surreptitiously checking his email.
The exciting 2008 candidate of hope and change? Gone. Even the larger-than-life American eagle hanging behind the two candidates seemed perplexed.
This was, though, a serious exchange blessedly shy of rehearsed jabs.
Romney moved fast to keep viewers from straying to ESPN. By 9:12 p.m., he already had evoked Vice President Joe Biden's gaffe of the week: Romney suggested that under Obama's policies, the middle class has been "buried." Not until 9:24 did Obama retort with his own one-liner – that the American economy was sound when his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton was president.
Throughout their economic discussion, the two men probed repeatedly at each other's perceived vulnerabilities: that Romney, a man of immense personal wealth, favors the rich. And that Obama, having pledged four years ago to halve the federal deficit, failed.
But as the night wore on, it was Romney brimming with ideas and offering that he would rather work out specific solutions with Congress next year, not issue ultimatums to the legislative branch today.