What do you get if you cross a spirited Republican with a sleepy Democrat? Big Bird flu, if Twitter is anything to go by. INES NOVAVICon this week's debate
THE FIRST presidential debate in Denver last Wednesday was a policy-rich duel covering tax reform, healthcare and defence, and Mitt Romney was widely credited as having gained the upper hand.
Afterwards, media trends went from “Romney won” and “silent Lehrer”, to “Obama fights back” and “Romney confidence soars”. As Republicans rally behind Romney’s energised performance, Democrats are reassessing their strategy and attacking Romney’s “untruthfulness”.
Romney received a standing ovation at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Denver, where he confidently continued attacks on Barack Obama: “I saw the president’s vision as trickle-down government, and I don’t think that’s what America believes in.”
One Republican strategist told the politics website thehill.com: "It's too bad we didn't see this Romney sooner, because he could have been leading in the polls."
Poll numbers from Wednesday show Romney trailing just a few points behind Obama. In the coming days, Team Romney will continue to campaign in Florida and Virginia. At a rally in Virginia on Thursday, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, pounced on remarks made earlier in the day by the vice-president, Joe Biden, who said the Obama administration wanted to reduce the burden on the middle class by raising taxes on the wealthy.
Amid Republican criticism, Democrats have swiftly begun damage control, which kicked off on Thursday morning with a feisty Obama in front of a Denver rally of 12,000 people. The president said the former Massachusetts governor was untruthful during the debate.
“I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. But it couldn’t have been Mitt Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favour the wealthy. The fellow on stage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.”
In Iowa, Biden addressed 600 supporters and defended Obama’s sleepy debate: “I think the president did well; he was presidential. As time goes on – meaning days – it’s going to become pretty clear that Governor Romney has either changed a number of his positions or didn’t remember some of his positions.”
During an interview with Fox News, Obama’s campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt criticised Romney’s “showmanship” and comparing it to Clint Eastwood’s chair mishap: “Governor Romney delivered a great work of performance art last night, but, on substance, his positions were just as empty as the chair that Mr Eastwood had on stage.”
Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod said the debate campaign would make some adjustments, conceding that supporters would have liked to hear Obama slam Romney’s old firm Bain Capital, his tax returns and the 47 per cent video. But, he said, “Obama’s choice was to talk about the main things people are worried about in their lives.”
Surprisingly a big talking point was the possibility of Big Bird getting the axe? Paula Kerger, chief executive of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a nonprofit US public television network, said Romney’s debate pledge to stop the channel’s subsidy was a “stunning moment”.
The hashtag #BigBird dominated social media yesterday, and even the official @SesameStreet Twitter account had some fun with Romney’s much-quoted “I’m sorry, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS,” despite professing, “I like Big Bird.”
“My bed time is usually 7.45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?” @SesameStreet tweeted.
Other accounts chimed in: “I guess I should have seen it coming; I am part of the 47 per cent after all. #savebigbird,” wrote @BigBirdLives.
“Thank goodness someone is finally getting tough on Big Bird,” Obama said at a Thursday rally. “We didn’t know Big Bird was driving the federal deficit.”
Perhaps Democrats shouldn’t have come down on moderator Jim Lehrer’s poor performance. Maybe Romney’s attack on PBS is to blame. “I sometimes wondered if we even needed a moderator, because we had Mitt Romney,” an Obama spokeswoman told CNN after the debate.
More than 67 million people watched the debate. Almost a third more compared with the first Obama-McCain in 2008. A Twitter spokeswoman, Rachael Horwitz, said the debate was the most tweeted about political event in US history.
In all, despite mass attention to the event – probably thanks to the ridiculousness of #BigBird – this debate was hardly one of the greats and didn’t ruffle any feathers (Big Bird’s aside).
Ines Novavic is blogging about the US presidential election for The Irish Times. For more see irishtimes.com