Presidential Debate Live Blog

The first presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama goes down tonight at 9 p.m. EST. Obama is preparing by making Mean Girls references and celebrating his wedding anniversary and Romney is preparing by inviting contest winners to his headquarters.

We’re preparing by inviting all of you to join in on tonight’s live blog where we’ll provide running commentary on the debate, reactions from readers, and the best stuff from around the web. Check back here, and also at or on Facebook and Twitter.

Until then, get yourself excited by checking out this great interactive feature from the New York Times on the most memorable presidential debate moments through history.


10:31 P.M. The debate’s closing and you can already get a sense of the pundit spin that’ll dominate the coverage tomorrow. Obama seemed off his game and Romney was strong, though he portrayed himself as much more moderate than he has in the past. (See: Many mentions of Massachusetts.) “He did a lot of compassionate conservatism where he hasn’t done it before,” says David Brooks on PBS. Here’s Vanity Fair:

“I think we saw tonight was the rust from the President not having been in a debate for four years,” says Mark Shields on PBS. They cite Mitt Romney saying “Maybe I need a new acountant,” a huge, gaping opening for Obama to bring up Romney’s taxes that passed without an Obama mention.

Andrew Sullivan is apoplectic.

The debate, itself, gets good marks as a genuine back and forth on ideas.

And now over to the pundits and fact-checkers to parse through the candidates’ statements. We recommend the Times’s fact-checking as a great first stop. With that, we’re out. Thanks so much to those who followed along,  and check in for more post-debate coverage as the night and the morning wear on.

10:28 P.M. Perhaps the most frivolous but fun take-away is Romney’s “Big Bird” comment, which got the largest reaction on Twitter of all the debate moments. (Oh, Twitter.) In fact, a new account named “@B1GB1RD,” an obscene version of the Sesame Street character Romney vowed to defund, in just one short hour of life has gained 12,000 followers. Wow.

10:27 P.M. “First of all Romney’s going to have a busy first day because he’s also going to repeal Obamacare, and that won’t be popular with the Democrats he’s sitting down with.” Obama’s penultimate statement begins with one of his first really good, comfortable dings on Romney in a while. 10:15 P.M. “Massachusetts, our schools are ranked #1 of all states. And the key to great schools is teachers,” Romney says. He’s really owned his home state in a way we didn’t expect, tonight. And by “owned,” we mean, “mentioned a few times,” which is itself surprising. Obama counters: “This is where budgest matter because budgets reflect choices.” So when Romney says he will cut taxes “that makes a difference.” He brings up Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s budget. “It wasn’t very detailed. This seems to be a trend.” Zinger! He also gets a hit on Romney for saying we should hit up our parents for money to go to college. Romney’s response is one of the much advertised “zingers!”

Romney has also reiterated the performance of Massachusetts schools AND the makeup of Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature. We’re in the spotlight tonight, people. 10:04 P.M. Countering that last update, Romney’s now speaking at length about the differences between his health care reform and Obama’s. “What we did in a legislature of 87 percent Democrats is we worked together. … What were some differences? We didn’t raise taxes. You raised them by $1 trillion. We didn’t cut Medicare. of course we don’t have Medicare… “We also didn’t … put people in a position where they were going to lose the insurance they had and they wanted.” Romney hammers Obama for pushing the law through without bipartisan cooperation but Obama counters that he used the same advisors as Romney “and they say it’s the same plan.” Obama got very snippy with Lehrer saying he had five seconds left before Lehrer cut him off. He then speaks for at least 20 more seconds. “Obama wants to keep talking about Obamacare vs. Romneycare because he thinks its a strong point for him, and makes Romney look like a waffler,” explains Reeve at The Atlantic Wire.

9:58 P.M. Romney says he can’t understand how Obama spent two years passing Obamacare. “It killed jobs.” He says much better to “craft a plan at the state level.” That’s his first Massachusetts shout-out and it was “blink and you’ll miss it” brief and didn’t actually use the word “Massachusetts.” (As is so often the case when Romney’s health care reform is the subject.) Says Boston Magazine‘s own Jason Schwartz, who had a must-read profile of Mitt Romney’s time as governor:

9:50 P.M. Romney once again steam-rolls Lehrer, interrupting Obama to ask if they can keep to the topic of Medicare. It’s a bit annoying, but he does look like the man in charge when he does it. Finally Lehrer regains control. “Can we agree that the voters have a clear choice between the two of you on Medicare?” “Absolutely,” they both say. Okay, and we’re off to a new topic. 9:45 P.M. Check the clock folks, it’s 9:45 p.m. and Buzzfeed’s Editor Ben Smith has declared Romney the debate winner. Why?

Mitt Romney, trailing in the polls, needed to prove tonight that he could stand on stage with President Barack Obama as an equal and a plausible president of the United States.   He did that in the crucial first 40 minutes of Wednesday night’s debate, addressing Obama respectfully, even warmly — but then tangling with a sometimes hazy and professorial Obama on taxes and deficits

We get his point, and we understand his headline is a bait for your eyeballs, but we’re not quite ready to call this thing yet. That said, here’s another bad review from a big Obama supporter, blogger Andrew Sullivan:

This is a rolling calamity for Obama. He’s boring, abstract, and less human-seeming than Romney! I can’t even follow hm half the time. Either exhausted, over-briefed … or just flailing. He is throwing this debate away

9:34 P.M. They are now arguing over Mitt Romney’s admission during the primaries that he wouldn’t raise taxes even a $1 for $10 of budget cuts. Romney stands by it and argues that his plan will increase revenues by broadening the tax base. Obama says we need a “balanced approach.” Unlike the muddled conversation on what exactly Mitt Romney’s tax plan is, this seems to be an issue on which the candidates agree that they disagree. In terms of attitude, Romney seems anxious and excited, and Romney seems … boring. That’s according to some, anyway:

Romney gets good reviews for his performance in this section, especially for this “zinger.” “You don’t just pick the winners and losers — you pick the losers,” he says of Obama’s energy investments, like Solyndra. 9:28 P.M. Romney talking about cutting funding for PBS. “I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I actually like you,” he says to Lehrer. Maybe not his best zinger ? Buzzfeed is doing its thing with this one: 9:25 P.M. Oh man, Romney just dictated the rules to moderator Lehrer. “He got the first word on this so I’m going to get the last word.” Lehrer says no, and tries to explain how this will be fair, but Romney just plows on. Strong leadership or not playing by the rules? You decide, but man this is a tough job for Lehrer, made tougher by two guys used to being in charge. 9:21 P.M. Obama has managed to work Romney-endorser Donald Trump into the debate! But not to point out that he’s a nutcase birther, but in fact that he’s classified as a “small business,” in a rhetorical trick employed by Romney. 9:13 P.M. Obama was asked to respond to an assertion by Romney and demured, instead talking more about his job creating policies.

Romney, in turn, was asked to respond directly to Obama’s policies, and he is obliging, not sounding aggressive but very much on the attack. He also asserted he’s not the massive tax cutter Obama would have you believe he is. Obama responds: “Governor Romney’s proposal that he’s been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut … and he’s saying that he’s going to pay for it using loopholes and deductions. The problem is … he hasn’t been able to identify them,” Obama says. Romney responds that he will not lower taxes on high income Americans and will definitely not raise them on middle income families. Obama counters that he’s backtracking on a tax, “his big bold idea is ‘Never mind.'”.  We rule this the first “zinger” of the debate:

Can’t wait for the fact checkers to have it out on this, as it’s pretty much become a he said-he said. 9:06 P.M. Lehrer’s first question: “What are the main differences between each of you about how you would go about creating jobs?” Each candidate gets two minutes. Obama opens by noting his wedding anniversary. “20 years ago I become the luckiest man on earth because Michelle agreed to marry me.” (Those who picked mentions of candidate wives as a drinking trigger will be taking shots right now.) Romney begins by congratulating Obama on his anniversary. “I’m sure this is the most romantic place you could be. Here with me!” A genuinely funny opening joke from Romney. Here they are shaking hands. And epic maker of political .gifs, Elspeth Reeve has the handshake, which she notes, “lasts way too long.” 9:02 P.M. The debate is on! Lehrer is explaining the rules and the topics: the economy, health care, and governing. (Tonight’s debate is about domestic issues, broadly.) Expect a more lively format allowing for large chunks of back and forth on one topic, a change designed to encourage actual … debate. 8:50 P.M. The New York Times‘s Michael Shear has a helpful reminder that fans of the rowdy Republican debates will be disappointed with tonight’s crowd:

Gone will be the hooting and hollering from the crowds that helped to animate some of the Republican candidates this year. Remember Newt Gingrich getting the audience whipped up in South Carolina by attacking the news media? He got a standing ovation. There are strict rules during a general election debate, enforced by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a very serious group. No applause. No booing. You might not even know they are there.

We saw some of this during this week’s Senate debate between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, as well. Tonight’s moderator, Jim Lehrer, has arrived and is reminding the audience of these rules himself:

8:34 P.M.: Mitt Romney and family are playing jenga backstage, according to Twitter.

Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out as badly as it did in this oft-cited .gif. Though it probably will, as all Jenga games must come to an end somehow.

8:00 P.M.: Hello all! Before the debate starts, we figured we’d point you to some of the most helpful pre-debate coverage, should you want to bone up in the time that remains. Reading the news, it feels like tonight is far more about Mitt Romney than it is about Obama. The polls are close but in key swing states, they are moving in Obama’s direction, so Romney could benefit from an interruption in the race’s narrative. With that in mind, James Fallows wrote a lengthy cover story for The Atlantic about Mitt Romney’s relative advantages and weaknesses as a debater. We highly recommend it if you’ve got the time.

Getting down to specifics, both campaigns have been doing their very best to downplay expectations by making wildly ridiculous claims about the skills of the other candidate. (This way, the candidate will only have to beat a very low bar to impress America. Silly. Also Obama is losing this contest, in that America has higher expectations for him.) They’ve also been releasing little hints about their debate strategies. In the case of the Romney campaign, they’ve released so many details that my former colleague at The Atlantic Wire Elspeth Reeve was able to cobble together a minute-by-minute prediction of everything you can expect from Mitt Romney. Among the things to expect are a series of “zingers,” or quippy one-liners that Romney has reportedly been rehearsing for months in order to win the instant replay news cycle and “create moments.” Will this work? There’s a rich history of memorable zingers in presidential debates, but there’s an even richer history of forgettable debate zingers, as Daily Intel’s Dan Amira hilariously recounts.

In more frivolous news, there’s been lots of talk lately about the relative blink-rates of politicians. The theory is that historically the candidate that blinks the most loses the election. USA Today puts it the most sensationally with the headline, “Obama, Romney eye blinks could decide election.” And Mediaite has a good, if more sober, explainer as well. Who will win this indirect staring contest of non-blinking? We probably won’t be counting, but others might be and we’ll let you know if a clear winner emerges. It could decide the election! (Or not.)

And lastly, should you even be watching the debates? As unmissable entertainment, perhaps, but Reuters’ Jack Shafer isn’t so sure they’re useful tools for voters at this point. On the other hand, Newton Minnow makes the case for them in the Times.

So you’ve got your reading list. We’ll see you at 9 p.m. sharp.