Did The President Need A Sip Of Romney's Red Bull?

Tens of millions of Americans tuned in to watch Wednesday night's presidential debate, which focused on domestic policy. Polls indicate that a majority of viewers thought GOP nominee Mitt Romney came out ahead of President Obama. Host Michel Martin breaks down the debate with former speech writers Mary Kate Cary and Paul Orzulak.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we are recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month by speaking with the first Mexican-American woman to become a college or university president in the U.S. We'll hear her very interesting story in a few minutes.

But first, we turn to last night's presidential debate. An estimated 60 million Americans tuned in to watch the first face-off between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

Today, pundits from across the political spectrum, as well as instant polls of viewers, indicate a consensus that Mr. Romney won last night's debate, but there's always the question of what that really means, so here to help us review the style and the substance, we have with us Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Also with us once again, Paul Orzulak. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton, as well as Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 election, and he's a founding partner of the speechwriting firm West Wing Writers. They're both here with us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us once again.

PAUL ORZULAK: Nice to be here, Michel.

MARY KATE CARY: Good to be here.

MARTIN: So I'm going to take this in two parts. First, I'm going to ask each of you which moment stood out most for each of you and then I'm going to ask you to break down each candidate's performance a little more. So let's take that in turn. Mary Kate, why don't you start? Which moment stood out for you?

CARY: I think the best part was when Mitt Romney was talking about bipartisanship. I think that really got through to people and that's what people are hungry to hear, that he's going to get Washington working again. It was a direct contrast to the president's response on it, which was, oh, you know, because sometimes you can't get people to work together. And I think that sort of summed up a lot of it.

It was a great night for Mitt Romney and throughout it he was the Mitt Romney we've all been waiting to see and he was a safe alternative now, which he wasn't a week ago. He was passionate, specific, smart, funny. He told stories that connected with people. Just across the board this was the beginning of the race last night.

MARTIN: OK. Paul Orzulak, what debate moment stood out for you?

ORZULAK: Well, the first five minutes, the first 10 minutes of the debate, I think, showed that Governor Romney was on his game. He came and he - his joke - he made a nice self-deprecating joke after the president recognized his wife for their 20th anniversary.

But the moment for me was when Jim Lehrer turned to the governor and asked if he - do you have any questions for the president? And he had a crisp, two minute response that really was a highlight of his program, went through his five points that he was running on before asking the question. It wasn't simply a question that was an attack, and this is the Mitt Romney that ran for governor in Massachusetts. This is not the man that we've seen on the campaign trail.

MARTIN: So it sounds like you agree. As a Democrat, you do agree that Mitt Romney - this was his night. Do you agree with that?

ORZULAK: It was a good night. I was hoping for Red Sox versus Yankees. I think we got Red Sox versus Yankees 2012 - the Red Sox, you know, far behind as they are.

MARTIN: Why don't you - why don't you pick up the thread there, Paul? So why don't you talk about President Obama? What did he do wrong from your perspective, or did he do - did he do anything wrong or was Mitt Romney just better?

ORZULAK: Well, I think Governor Romney was better prepared with attacks last night with a strong sense of what he wanted to land on the president and what he wanted to pin the president down on. The president - he left behind all the lines that he has on the campaign trail about Bain Capital, about the fact that Mitt Romney pioneered outsourcing, his 47 percent comment about 47 percent of the American people dependent on handouts.

So in that void, Governor Romney could define himself as a person of the moment and...

MARTIN: Let's play a clip that might speak to this perspective that you're just sort of describing here that actually both of you just described. This is a clip of the president talking about Mr. Romney or Governor Romney's tax proposal, and then we'll hear a little bit of Governor Romney's response. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Governor Romney's proposal that he's been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military.

MITT ROMNEY: I'm not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That's not my plan. My plan is not to put in place any tax cut that will add to the deficit.

MARTIN: So to your point, I mean the president wonky and Mitt Romney aggressive.

ORZULAK: Yes.

MARTIN: And still substantive enough.

ORZULAK: I think, you know, the playbook is that, during the primaries you run to the right. During the general election you run to the center. Governor Romney hasn't done that. He's run further to the right. Last night he sounded like the man that ran for governor of Massachusetts, but in truth his program is still far to the right of the American people.

I think the president succeeded last night in laying out a choice. There definitely is a choice. Next month we're going to spend talking about those differences, the fact that the governor is proposing $5 trillion in tax cuts that he doesn't pay for, that he does want to voucherize Medicare, and he does want to help the people at the top of the economic ladder more than the middle class, even though last night, if you were playing a debate drinking game last night, you probably got alcohol poisoning on the strength of Mitt Romney's mention of the middle class alone.

I mean that is not the man that he - that's not the program he's running on. That's not the person he's been on the campaign trail, but the fact is that his program is not going to change and his program is still out of step with what the American people want.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about last night's presidential debate with two of our former presidential speechwriters, Mary Kate Cary, who worked with Republican administrations; Paul Orzulak, who worked with Democratic administrations.

Mary Kate, on the whole question of running back toward the center, one of the ways that Mitt Romney sort of pivoted back toward his roots is in re-embracing what is now called Obamacare, or his version of Obamacare. President Obama said it was the basis for the Affordable Care Act. So did Mitt Romney's Republican rivals during the primary.

He seemed to wrap his arms around it once again and I wanted to ask if - was he effective in doing that or does it look like another flip-flop, which is something that he's been accused of doing?

CARY: Oh, I thought it was the best answer he's given so far on Romneycare. I thought he came across as very reasonable, middle of the road, mainstream. I didn't hear any sort of far right language from him. He certainly didn't disavow Romneycare. I thought it was the best job he's done on health care reform of what his plan is going forward.

The other thing I liked...

MARTIN: How will that play with the Republican base? Because the conventional wisdom has been that that's one of the things that people have either praised or criticized him for, is being too solicitous of the Republican base, which in some ways is out of step with kind of the general voting audience. How do you think that'll - his performance will play?

CARY: Oh, he said several times last night that on day one he's repealing Obamacare and that he will replace it with what he thinks is a better plan and I thought he did a great job last night of laying out what that means and keeping the stuff people like and getting rid of the stuff that's hurting small business.

ORZULAK: Actually, I would disagree with that. I don't think he's laid out a single health care plan, other than saying, yes, I believe we shouldn't have preexisting conditions and I believe that we shouldn't burden small business. But in truth, his health care plan is just like his tax plan. It's trust me and I'll tell you after the election. Because we don't have anything from him that's...

MARTIN: Well, let me ask about what - because there's another - there are actually two other presidential debates. We can continue - I'm...

CARY: True.

MARTIN: ...assuming we will continue to hear about more of these issues. Paul, why is it - you mentioned this earlier and a number of other commentators, particularly Democrats, have pointed out that the president seemed to leave a lot on the table. He didn't bring up Governor Romney's so-called 47 percent video, which is being featured in campaign ads, for example. Why do you think he didn't?

ORZULAK: Well, I think he probably wanted to focus on policy last night. I - personally, I would have loved to have seen more of that because it's an honest representation of who the governor is, his own words, his own record. And, you know, the president chose not to get personal and focus on that last night and, you know, it's a decision that he made because I think he wanted to focus on policy.

At the end, the governor - you know, he doesn't drink alcohol, but I think he drinks Red Bulls because we certainly saw him as strong as he's ever been last night and...

CARY: He was no Jennifer Granholm though.

ORZULAK: He was no Jennifer - but you know, in truth, but...

MARTIN: Talking about rather her overheated performance at the Democratic convention, former...

CARY: She says she was not drinking Red Bull.

ORZULAK: Well, in truth, if you...

MARTIN: We'll take her word for it.

ORZULAK: If you look back at the nine elections between 1976 and 2008, there are only two years when the incumbent party candidate gained ground relative to the challenger in the first debate. These events are tailor made for the challengers and he does know how to prepare for these things and he did a really nice job last night. It was so clear that he had practiced so many of these responses. The great line he had about his five sons, which connected with me as a parent - that was clearly one that was ready to be deployed at some moment and he did it.

And he's running for president. The president's running the country. He's had a lot more time to prepare. He's been preparing for these in Vermont since June.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, what do you think?

CARY: My take on it as a speechwriter is that he has gotten too reliant on his teleprompter and so I think that explains why there were so many umming and awings last night from President Obama. I think he was trying to fix it by taking notes and that meant less eye contact, and the spiral began.

MARTIN: It seemed like he didn't want to be there.

CARY: And that was the overall takeaway. He looked annoyed. He didn't want to be there. He looked like he had better things he could be doing.

MARTIN: I have to ask about the moderator because the issue of who moderates this debate has become an issue this year in a way that it really has not been previously. I mean it had been discussed previously, but there was a lot of discussion from outside groups about the choice of moderators, all of whom are white. They are all, you know, veterans, but these are people, you know...

CARY: You have a woman for the first time in 20 years.

MARTIN: A woman for the first time in 20 years who's moderating the town hall debate...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...where she basically gets to be a talk show host. No disrespect to talk show hosts. But she basically gets to hold the mic for the...

CARY: The undecided voters.

MARTIN: ...the voters.

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask just your opinion about this, if I may. How did he do? Jim Lehrer - this is his 12th presidential debate. He says it's going to be his last. He's already retired, really, from his...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...primary post as a principal anchor of "The News Hour" on PBS. So Mary Kate, what do you think?

CARY: I had read that he had said in advance that he was already done with debates and that's why he's written this book on the history of debates that's coming out in the next few weeks. But then the debate commission called and he is of a generation that says when your country calls, you say yes. And he took it to mean that he couldn't say no.

I think that was probably against his better judgment and I assume this really is his last debate. I believe he's closing in on 80 years old and I think that showed a little bit last night. He certainly, to me, seemed very fair. I don't think he was biased or anything like that. The biggest problem is he seemed like he sort of lost control of the proceedings a little bit, but I didn't take it as a biased thing. I thought he was fair.

MARTIN: OK. Paul, what about you?

ORZULAK: I don't think anybody could have brought control to that debate last night because I think one of the governor's strategies was to take charge of that, to be strong, to talk over the moderator, to ask questions. It was - you know, it's a technique they perfected during the Republican primaries this year where a lot of the questions from moderators actually became the target of responses. Newt Gingrich in particular, but Governor Romney did it as well.

But you know, if you step back, even though it didn't serve the president as well last night from my perspective, I think Americans like to see less structure to those. They like to see...

CARY: Yeah.

ORZULAK: ...the candidates interact, ask each other questions.

CARY: I like the new format. Yeah.

ORZULAK: I like that. Rather than practiced answers to questions and then moving on...

CARY: A little more of a conversation.

ORZULAK: That's where you get those moments, and while it didn't - you know, it didn't serve the president as well last night as I would have hoped, it will the next debate.

MARTIN: Paul Orzulak is a former speechwriter for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore's 2000 election campaign. He's a founding partner of the speechwriting firm West Wing Writers. Also joining us, Mary Kate Cary. She is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and currently she's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

CARY: Great to be here.

ORZULAK: Thanks, Michel.

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