Dispatch panel offers variety of views on debate

October 4, 2012 11:13:49 AM

Jeff Clark - [email protected]


The first presidential debate of the 2012 election season has come and gone, and most political pundits and news outlets are claiming Mitt Romney as the winner. 


Held in Denver and moderated by PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, the first debate found Romney and Barack Obama tackling domestic issues such as health care, taxes and the economy. Obama struggled to find his words at times Wednesday night, while Romney seemed more poised and on point. The debate could be a turning point for the GOP in terms of attracting independent and undecided voters.  


In the next few weeks, Romney is expected to give a number of policy speeches, filling in details as he tries to sharpen the contrasts between himself and Obama while answering criticism that he hasn't clearly outlined his plans. The Republican challenger begins with a foreign policy speech in Virginia on Monday. Subsequent speeches are expected to focus on his plans for job creation, debt and spending. 


On the local front, reactions to the debate varied greatly in terms of who won and who best stayed on point. Columbus resident Claude Simpson was the only voter out of a seven-person debate focus group chosen by The Dispatch who remained undecided at the end of the debate. Simpson was critical of some of the debate rhetoric by both candidates. 


"I'm still undecided," said Simpson after the debate. "My favorite part of the debate was the explanation by both candidates on unemployment -- they both got it wrong." 


When asked who he thought won the debate, Simpson said, "Romney, because he appeared to be better prepared. To me, Obama appeared as if he did not want to be there." 


Brian Anderson, 45, professor of political science at Mississippi University for Women, said both candidates seemed to be all over the place on many of the issues. 


"Frankly, I thought it was a blur of information at times, with both candidates' positions interwoven so that it might be hard to tell them apart if you were reading their printed words rather than listening to them," said Anderson. "They are both fighting for the middle class, both want to preserve Social Security and Medicare, both care about the federal government role in education, etc. I really felt bad for Jim Lehrer. He had a whale of a time keeping the candidates to their time limits and struggled to get them to clarify their differences. The candidates preferred to go through all of their talking points, no matter how long it took, and they did not draw lines in the dirt that would separate them too deliberately from the other. From a debate strategy point of view, they were both playing it safe." 


Anderson also felt there was a clear winner of the debate. 


"President Obama won, mainly because he played good enough defense and because Romney really did not go after him as aggressively as was predicted. Romney made an effort to appeal to the middle class, but there was no 'a-ha' moment for those tuning in who might otherwise label him the candidate of the wealthy," Anderson said. "You can tell he cares deeply about the middle class, but so does Obama. This debate may be overshadowed by the VP debate, where there are greater opportunities for defining arguments that indicate differences in governing style and strategy and greater chances of a candidate putting a foot in his mouth." 


Pam Russell is a retired educator in her 50s who lives in Columbus. Russell is a Romney supporter who said the debate only solidified her confidence in Romney. 


"I think the discussion on jobs ran a bit long, but Romney presented his position more clearly on jobs, taxes and Medicare," Russell said. "President Obama's position was to continue to do what we have done the past four years. (I liked) when Gov. Romney clarified the statement, 'To get anything done, you need to work and perform across the aisle and work with both parties,' as well as the statement of maintaining our freedom of religion that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He had me at religion." 


Dr. Rebecca Smith, 42, is an economist at Mississippi State University. While she said the debate didn't change her mind on how she will cast her ballot, she was undecided on who won the debate. 


"Given the scope of this one was economic issues, they discussed issues like differences in tax policies and solutions to health care," said Smith. "I am looking forward to the next two debates, though, because I felt like I already understood where each was coming from on these issues. Gov. Romney was more forceful than Pres. Obama and was able to exceed the lower expectations he faced. As an incumbent president, Mr. Obama had to live up to higher expectations than did Gov. Romney. If judging a winner's based on exceeding expectations, than Gov. Romney took this one. If based on substance, I would not choose anyone who says he/she can deliver 12 million jobs created in this economy." 


Anastasia Elder, who is in her mid-40s and works as an associate professor at MSU, said she will continue to support Obama. 


"The debate did not change my mind -- I was and still am an Obama supporter," Elder said. "I do not think many people decide purely on the debates. I believe Obama has productive ideas to continue moving the country forward and improving the lives and future of middle class families. He is trustworthy, smart, and committed to helping all Americans. In contrast, there are many things that Romney wants to do that I think are extreme and frankly frightening: repealing the Affordable Care Act; canceling PBS; granting unneeded tax breaks to multi-millionaires, many backward social policies, etc. His priorities are directed to corporations and the wealthiest one percent." 


For Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Nancy Carpenter, 63, the debate was especially important as her son, Hunter Carpenter, works for the Romney campaign as an advance man. But family ties aside, Carpenter said her loyalties are with Romney. 


"Gov. Romney showed tonight that his preparation and executive leadership are ready to lead this country out of recession," said Carpenter. "America has undergone a number of economic troubles since its inception but there have been few, true leaders who have shown a preternatural ability to lead this country, the entire country, out of despair. You do not make a difference by heeding to interest groups. You have to construct new ideas and implement thought-out plans to turn around a fledgling economy. Contractors would never build a house without a blueprint, so why rely on ideas unfounded by, at best, vague plans? Tonight, Gov. Romney laid forth a blueprint that was written at the beginning of his campaign and made sure the American public was able to read that blueprint without an architectural degree. This is uncommon for a presidential candidate. Preparation means a lot in any election, but it means even more so during an election marred by such a period of malaise. His strong stance for military funding and awareness was so loud, it was deafening. I believe a community so dependent on our local men and women in uniform should and will appreciate such a strong stance on making sure we are safe here at home. Columbus has an opportunity to show our service members how much we care about them by voting for a candidate who is unyielding in his support for our Armed Forces. The Columbus Air Force Base is important to our community, our children's education, and most importantly, our country's safety, which as Gov. Romney stated, is a right, enumerated in our Constitution." 


Sam Guyton, 33, a student at MUW, said he was "swayed at moments" by both candidates. He was, however, undecided on who won the debate. 


"Based purely on a scoring matter, I would say Obama won the talking on point, but Romney seemed clearly more prepared and focused in his approach," said Guyton. "Obama at times seemed to lose focus and go off point. I also noticed that Obama rarely made eye contact, whereas Romney appeared to maintain eye contact. I feel that is very important when having a debate." 


This article contains content by The Associated Press.