J.D. Hayworth is a former Arizona congressman and published author, who is also a frequent guest host for nationally-syndicated radio shows and a regular columnist for local and national publications.
In the "Pantheon of Political Lore," the first presidential debate of 2012 may not rank as highly as the 1980 Reagan-Carter confrontation, but it comes very close.
No, we didn't hear "There you go again!" or "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" but Mitt Romney gave a Reaganesque performance, while President Barack Obama disappointed Democrats and his cheerleaders in the media, just as Jimmy Carter did 32 years ago.
Here are the five factors that led to a Romney win in "Round 1":
1. The audience was silent.
Was that the University of Denver or the "Vulcan Academy of Science?"
In 2008, candidate Obama was favorably compared to the fictional "Mr. Spock" of StarTrek for his real-life ability to stay cool and calm — almost devoid of emotion.
Last night, the President clearly expected the crowd to "ooh and ahh" when he opened the debate by mentioning that it was taking place on the Obamas' 20th anniversary, but the audience -- mindful of moderator Jim Lehrer's admonition to offer no reaction -- did just that. The collective non-response startled Obama at the outset and put him on the defensive.
2. The new "Fifteen Minute 'Free Exchange' Format" encouraged actual debate.
Gone were the time limit "traffic lights" as well as the bells and buzzers that made the previous debates seem to be the hybrid of a game show ( Who wants to be President?) and a joint press conference ( Meet[one member of]the Press).
Instead, we saw actual "give and take" -- with Romney giving the President much deserved grief over the Administration's failures -- and Obama taking rhetorical punch after rhetorical punch.
3. If you're explaining, you're losing!
That's especially true in a debate, where the key is to contrast yourself favorably with your opponent. Obama entrapped himself in "verbal quicksand" -- accusing Romney of a lack of specifics by launching into detailed criticisms of the Romney proposals that were so allegedly devoid of details!
Instead of long-winded lectures, Romney offered nimble responses laced with specifics that successfully deflected the President's primary complaint.
4. Respect the "Romney Rejoinders!"
From the "Disciplinarian Dad" who called down Obama on deliberate distortions by recalling the unsuccessful efforts of his sons to make him believe that a falsehood was true by merely repeating it, to the "Practical Businessman" who said of the President's "green energy" boondoggles, "You don't just pick winners and losers, you pick losers," Romney displayed an uncanny ability to counterpunch and confound the President.
My favorite Romney "role playing response" was the "nice guy with a tough job to do", explaining that taxpayer funds would be eliminated to PBS even though he "loves Big Bird," and thinks that last night's moderator, Lehrer, does a fine job on News Hour.
After all, said Romney, the question he will ask himself when it comes to spending more money is this: "Is it worth borrowing more from China to pay for it?"
5. Beware this "unwitting Obama admission!"
Romney campaign aides must feel as if they "ran the table" last night, because not only was Obama's performance "flat," it also included a key concession — which will prove very helpful to the GOP in the final days of this campaign.
When asked if there were profound differences between himself and Romney on Social Security, Obama said that his opponent has a "similar position." In so doing, Obama surrendered the standard Democrat scare tactic that always comes along in time for Halloween: telling seniors that a Republican president will take away their Social Security!
Now that the President has said that he and the Governor basically hold the same position, Obama may very well have "inoculated" his opponent from this shopworn (but effective) attack.
Lest the success of Romney last night completely overtake my fellow Republicans, allow me to offer this caveat: a victory in the opening debate does not guarantee a win on Election Night. Just ask "President" John Kerry, who performed well against George W. Bush in the first debate of 2004...or "President" Walter Mondale who won the initial debate in the 1984 campaign.
There's still a long way to go, and Obama didn't become the 44th president just by using a teleprompter -- though he certainly needed one last night!