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U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida October 22, 2012. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES  - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS USA PRESIDENTI
I've clearly been obsessed the last few days with the reality-evading bubble the GOP constructed for itself the last few months. We've discussed their poll unskewing ad infinitum, but there's at least one more place where it had a significant impact on the campaign: the debates.

The liberal reaction after the first debate was swift and fierce. President Barack Obama performed poorly, to put it mildly, and he got no quarter or benefit of the doubt from his supporters. But this reaction (though overwrought in some quarters) forced Obama to deal with the setback:

After the debate, Mr. Obama called Mr. Axelrod on his way back to the hotel room. He had read the early reviews on his iPad.

“I guess the consensus is that we didn’t have a very good night,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Axelrod.

“That is the consensus,” Mr. Axelrod said [...]

After watching a videotape of his debate performance, Mr. Obama began calling panicked donors and supporters to reassure them he would do better. “This is on me,” the president said, again and again.

Mr. Obama, who had dismissed warnings about being caught off guard in the debate, told his advisers that he would now accept and deploy the prewritten attack lines that he had sniffed at earlier. “If I give up a couple of points of likability and come across as snarky, so be it,” Mr. Obama told his staff.

Compare that to Mitt Romney's performance in the second debate. While not as obviously bad as Obama's first performance, it was still terrible. The snap polls—despite being weighed heavily Republican (they watched the debates in greater numbers)—found that Romney had gotten trounced.

But unlike Democrats who refused to crawl into a hole and deny reality, Republicans did just that. They claimed Romney had done well, beaten Obama, done what "he had to do," and generally announced mission accomplished. They blamed Candy Crowley for challenging Romney on his Benghazi lie, then claimed it wasn't a lie despite the clear video evidence to the contrary. Denying that reality was a huge mistake, as the third debate proved.

Already, the vice-presidential and 2nd presidential debates had turned around the polling trendlines:

National trendlines, Obama v Romney, showing Obama rise well before Hurricane Sandy/.
Romney's tiny national lead was nearly gone, while he had failed to close the gap in the necessary battlegrounds. Romney needed to once again change the dynamics of the race, like he had done so the first debate. And that meant being aggressive and once again taking the fight to Obama.

Instead, we saw Romney do his best imitation of Obama's first-debate performance. He was tentative, hesitant, played it safe, looked bored, tired, aloof, agreed a whole hell of a lot with Obama, and let Obama interrupt him and dictate the terms and pace of the debate.

He was playing it safe, deploying a prevent defense, and it was backfiring on him the same way it backfired on Obama when he attempted it the first time around. At the time, I remember thinking, "Why would you do that if you're not ahead?" Well, now we know that they did think they were ahead. But worst of all, he had made no adjustments based on his second-debate failures. He had bought the right-wing spin that he had done just fine, and didn't make the necessary corrections to account for a different debate partner.

What had worked against a listless Obama wasn't working against a lively one, and rather than pretend he had done well the second time out, he would've been better served with a healthy (if painful) dose of reality.

Originally posted to kos on Fri Nov 09, 2012 at 10:49 AM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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