DENVER — 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 Obama. Academic observers interviewed on 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 on 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 Jerry Shuster, who teaches communication 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 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 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 leadoff debate as a loss for the President. There were no disasters that will haunt him in the campaign’s remaining weeks, and by going light on aggression, Mr. Hogan said, Mr. Obama 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 second debate, have heard a lot about the campaign, but some who discussed Wednesday’s match with Rosanna Perotti, chairman of political science at the Long Island university, said they ended up tuning out the deluge of figures and instead watched 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’s 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 said he showed leadership.
“Romney has got a hell of a personality,” Mr. Shuster said. “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.”
Mr. Romney debated throughout the primary season, a process from which Mr. Obama is four years removed, noted Gordon Mitchell, associate professor and chairman of communication at the University of Pittsburgh.
“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 underperforming in their first re-election debate. Mr. Hogan pointed to Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mr. Shuster compared Mr. Obama’s performance to one of George W. Bush.
“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,” Mr. Mitchell 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.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Karen Langley is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Karen Langley at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 717-787-2141