Romney wins the debate season -- and the key test for a challenger; Update: Romney hits 50% in Rasmussen tracker, up 4

Allahpundit linked to National Journal’s Ron Fournier last night in his excellent roundup of the debate analysis, but it’s worth considering again the next morning after the final debate of the 2012 presidential cycle.  Like many pundits after the debate, Fournier gives Barack Obama the edge on debate performance last night, but writes that Mitt Romney won the overall debate season — perhaps because Romney, unlike Obama, understood the stakes:

Mitt Romney wins. That’s not to say he won Monday night’s debate or the presidential campaign, but it’s safe to say he won an important chapter: The debate season.

With an acceptable, though far from exceptional, performance in his third and final face-off with President Obama, the former Massachusetts governor became one of the few presidential candidates to make debates matter.

Bottom line: Obama won Monday night’s debate on points, benefiting from the blessings of incumbency and hard-world experience. But the challenger held his own, and thus the state of the race is likely unchanged.

Debates between the two presidential candidates are ostensibly to force them to defend their agendas.  They mainly get used to produce sound bites, zingers, and gaffes that the media hopes to use to define the race.  Their real value to voters, however, is to test the presidential mettle of each man.  A President is presumed to have more of it, by virtue of his four years in the office already, so the challenger has to work hard to equal or surpass his stature.  Romney did that in the first debate, and in the two succeeding debates solidified his standing as a man at least Obama’s equal.

In fact, Chris Wallace wondered whether Romney was the one with the gravitas of incumbency last night:

Yeah, let me first give you my general opinion. And that was, I thought in the middle of the debate that if I had been on the desert island for the last four years and I had just been parachuted into this debate, I would have thought the guy that had turned out to be Mitt Romney was the president protecting a lead and that Barack Obama was the challenger trying, somewhat desperately to catch up.

Obama was slashing, was personal, was cutting, I thought that Romney was big-picture, seemed to have much more of an agenda for the future than the President did.  I e-mailed one of his top aides in the course of the debate, and said, “What’s behind this strategy?” Clearly he was not taking the bait, not getting into fights with Barack Obama.  This official said, “This is all Mitt Romney’s idea.  This is how he wants to conduct this debate.”

Remember Morrissey’s Axiom on Politics and Dating? Desperation is not an aphrodisiac.  Small wonder, then, that even in a PPP poll that proclaimed Obama the winner of the debate by eleven points in swing states that the net movement for both men wound up in the margin of error (+6 for Obama and +3 for Romney) — and not even among likely voters.

On substance, this was the least-relevant debate of them all.  Not only are voters not really watching for substance — which they could get rather easily by watching campaign speeches, after all — but foreign policy isn’t even really on their radar at all.  This economy is still all about jobs and the economy, as I point out in my column for The Week:

No matter who you think won last night’s presidential debate, it’s unlikely to have much bearing on the presidential election. In the end, voters simply don’t care about the issues of foreign policy anywhere near as much as they do about their own economic security.

That, by the way, is the norm for American presidential elections. In the last four presidential cycles, only 2004’s matchup between incumbent George W. Bush and John Kerry produced a foreign-policy issue with more mentions as “the most important problem” facing the nation among Gallup’s respondentsthan a domestic-policy issue. Not surprisingly, voters expressed considerable concern over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two major campaign issues in that cycle, with 23 percent listing wars as among their most pressing problems in the final month before the election. The economy in general only got mentioned by 21 percent of respondents, although 12 percent also mentioned unemployment. …

Gallup’s latest polling among American adults confirms this focus. While foreign policy may be the one arena where presidents have the most impact, it gets the least amount of concern in this cycle. This election has the largest percentage of “net economic mentions” of any of the last four cycles — even slightly higher than 2008, in the middle of the panic over the possible collapse of the financial sector (72 percent to 69 percent, respectively). Almost two-thirds of the responses came from “the economy in general” and “unemployment,” and 12 percent from the federal budget deficit. The wars, which still got 11 percent of the mentions in 2008, have now dropped to 3 percent in 2012.

These numbers do not change appreciably between men and women, either. In fact, women were slightly more likely to mention the economy and unemployment (64 percent) than men (62 percent). Health care came in a distant third for women (10 percent), while for men the federal deficit got the bronze (14 percent). Foreign policy only got mentioned by 3 percent of men and 4 percent of women overall — and in a blow to the Obama campaign’s attempt to stoke their “war on women” meme, only 1 percent of women even mentioned abortion.

This result shows how out of touch and off-key the Obama campaign has been in the final few weeks of the election. While Obama and Co. focused on Big Bird, voters worried about jobs. While Democrats obsessed about “binders,” women across the country were far more concerned with the economy.

Obama can’t win on the economy, and he can’t distract voters away from it.  And in a debate on stage alone with his challenger, he can’t even come up with enough gravitas to make himself look like he already has the job.  With two weeks to go, that’s a bad position for an incumbent.

Update: This obviously doesn’t include reaction to last night’s debate, but Romney hit 50% in Rasmussen’s tracking poll for the first time since early May, and now has a 4-point lead over Obama.

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