The rumble in Hempstead is over, and what a rumble it was. They came, they fought, they threw jabs, they connected. Why, they even reversed tie colors from the last presidential debate.
This, in other words, was serious business. But who won the debate from a purely TV perspective -- the one scored at home by Joe and Mary Sixpack who tend to be more skilled at deciphering the visual language of television than the prolix language of two professional politicians in a wrangle for the most important job in the world?
Well ... Couple of quick observations in that regard. There was no knockout blow. Not even a cold right hook to the chin that buckled someone to their knees. Whoever won this debate -- and you have to head to the bottom of the post for the final score -- did so by handling the demands of television in the most skillful, and economic, way.
By the way, instant polls last night by CNN and CBS gave the night to President Obama, so it would appear he was master of the tube. But can polls be wrong? (My first reaction last night was that Romney won but ... can TV critics be wrong?)
Let's take a look:
* The tie factor. Ah yes, the old tie factor, introduced here last week as a crucial part of any debate. Last night the president wore a red one, Mitt Romney a striped blue one. From the couch, color matters because if the background is blue than the blue tie wearer gets washed out on the screen, and so forth. Ah, but the set designers at Hofstra were clever - they used both a red and blue background, effectively nullifying tie choice.
- The winner: Ummm, a tie.
* The reaction shot: Hugely important, and displayed by either spit-screen or wide-angle last night. If you, the candidate, look bored, or distracted or annoyed or angry or -- conversely -- laughed out loud (known widely in the trade as “the Joe Biden Reax...") then that has a direct and often negative impact on the couch spud. He and she aren't listening to someone make a point as much as watch someone make a point -- the guy off to the side. If he's acting like a jerk -- otherwise known in the trade as the Al Gore Deep Sigh Reax -- then he's hurt far worse than the opponent. So, who did best? Romney often sat primly, with focused attention on his rival, and just the slightest smile. No eye rolling was evident. President Obama only occasionally smiled -- a dazzling smile, too -- but it didn't feel obnoxious (see: The Joe Biden Reax) or superior (see: Al Gore ... etc.). Otherwise, he looked like he was listening. Romney less so, and therefore...
- The winner: Obama
* The chair factor: Who would a figured a chair -- which did look a little like the one Clint Eastwood made friends with back at the RNC -- would be a factor here? But it was. How the candidate actually sat in the bloody thing would convey volumes about body language -- his comfort level, what he thought about the answer being given, etc. Romney, as noted, sat erect, straight-backed -- like the prim, perfect student at the head of the class. President Obama sat at slightly at an angle, his leg extended casually. He was the cool kid at the back of the class. Romney was the kid at the front of the class eager to raise his hand. “Teacher, teacher please pick me. I know the answer..."
- The winner: Obama
* Voice modulation: Ah, yes, now we're getting to something important. The voice. How does it sound on the ears of 60 million couch spuds at home? As I noted here last week, the president easily outscored Romney on this front because his cadence tends to be easier on the ears; Romney, by contrast, spoke in a rush of words -- hard sometimes to understand and giving the impression that the boy at the head of the class was maybe just a bit too eager. But he made a big adjustment last night. He slowed. The words rolled out instead of rushed out. Sure, he didn't give details about his economic plan, but at least this time you could hear that he didn't give details about it. There's something almost oddly comforting in that ... By contrast, the president -- in fighting mode -- sounded a little more tense. His voice rose a half an octave. The cadence sounded less comforting, more urgent. He was still easy to understand, but didn't sound quite as presidential. Romney, meanwhile, probably studied old tapes of Ronald Reagan debate techniques -- and you could almost hear the distant echo of the Gipper in his voice.
- Winner: Romney
* The eye-contact factor: This is tough because of course the people in the audience were the ones who were getting all the eye contact; not once did either candidate glance over at camera 1 (or 2) to make their case directly to the American public. Eye contact is a big deal for all the obvious reasons, but who made best eye contact with people sitting in the audience. You had to look at them to see, and by this standard both candidates seemed to connect. So I declare this...
- Winner: A tie
* The rudeness factor: Being rude is usually bad. It makes you look like a jerk, makes Mabel say to Joe Sixpack back on that couch in 60 million homes, “Jeez Joe, so-and-so was very mean. I don't like him ..." But you have to break some eggs now and then to make a TV omelet. So a little rudeness is to be expected. At 9:18 both candidates were in a free-for-all--- wildly throwing accusations back and forth, with even Candy Crowley about to cede control. At that moment, the challenger told the president -- the president! - to sit down. “You'll get your chance in a moment.” The president did. But did this moment hurt Romney? Did Mabel say to Joe Sixpack, “Jeez Joe, Mitt was very rude to the president...") That was the most glaring instance, while Obama was usually a little more gracious. So...
- Winner: Obama
* Finally, best in show: OK, we now render the final TV judgment. Who make the best impression on the couch spud at home? The answer's not so easy because said spud still remembers vividly Romney's superior performance from last week, and the president's subpar one -- the staring down at the shoes (actually the podium), the “umms," "ahhs," "uhhs.." Said spud still remembers being surprised that Romney--- even though the reputation preceded him -- was a pretty good debater. What the spuds instead saw last night was a re-energized president who used the tools of the TV trade effectively without overusing them (by smiling too much, snarling, etc.) They heard him state his positions coolly but clearly, and with just enough vocal force to demonstrate that he actually believed them this time. Romney certainly had his moments, too, a much better response, for example, to the Michael Jones question about the last four years being so economically lousy for him and millions of others. But Obama came back (usually) effectively enough to nullify some of that. Finally, on the porridge question -- too hot or too cold -- Obama seemed to strike just the right balance, or temperature. He was neither (which is to say he completely threw out Joe Biden's playbook from last Thursday). He simply played better on TV to the folks back home. So yes, a TV critic can change his mind.
- The winner: Obama.