As Other Outlets See Romney Debate Win, NYT Plays It Neutral: 'Feel of Seminar as Accusations Fly'

The first Obama-Romney presidential debate of 2012 ran under this less-than-informative banner headline in Thursday's New York Times: "Obama and Romney, in First Debate, Spar Over Fixing the Economy." The actual headline to the story by Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg also failed to capture the sense, overwhelming even among the liberal press, that Romney had helped himself with a sharp, energetic performance at the University of Denver: "Feel of Seminar as Accusations Fly From Rivals."

The Washington Post's banner headline was more direct and captured the consensus of the night: "Romney takes fight to Obama," while the story claimed the president "found himself on the defensive repeatedly." Other headlines from around the country captured the same effect.

By contrast, you had to really parse the Times to sense that Romney won the night. (One significant Timesman, former Executive Editor Bill Keller, reluctantly awarded Romney the debate on his Twitter feed, calling Romney's performance "shameless but masterful.")

Zeleny and Rutenberg wrote in Wednesday's lead:

Mitt Romney on Wednesday accused President Obama of failing to lead the country out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, using the first presidential debate to invigorate his candidacy by presenting himself as an equal who can solve problems Mr. Obama has been unable to.

The president implored Americans to be patient and argued that his policies needed more time to work, warning that changing course would wipe away the economic progress the country is steadily making. The two quarreled aggressively over tax policy, the budget deficit and the role of government, with each man accusing the other of being evasive and misleading voters.

But for all of the anticipation, and with less than five weeks remaining until Election Day, the 90-minute debate unfolded much like a seminar by a business consultant and a college professor. Both men argued that their policies would improve the lives of the middle class, but their discussion often dipped deep into the weeds, and they talked over each other without connecting their ideas to voters.

If Mr. Romney’s goal was to show that he could project equal stature to the president, he succeeded, perhaps offering his campaign the lift that Republicans have been seeking. Mr. Obama often stopped short of challenging his rival’s specific policies and chose not to invoke some of the same arguments that his campaign has been making against Mr. Romney for months.

At one point, Mr. Romney offered an admonishment, saying, “Mr. President, you’re entitled, as the president, to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts, all right?” He forcefully engaged Mr. Obama throughout the night, while the president often looked down at his lectern and took notes.

A boisterous campaign, which has played out through dueling rallies and an endless stream of television commercials, took a sober turn as the candidates stood at facing lecterns for the first time. Mr. Obama, who has appeared to take command of the race in most battleground states, seemed to adopt an air of caution throughout the evening that left some of his liberal supporters disappointed in his performance.

Not until paragraph 12 did the Times directly suggest Romney helped himself.

Neither candidate delivered that knockout blow or devastating line that each side was hoping for. Still, style points went to Mr. Romney, who continually and methodically pressed his critique of Mr. Obama. The president at times acted more as if he were addressing reporters in the Rose Garden than beating back a challenger intent on taking his job.

A related "check point" by Michael Cooper and a host of other beat reporters faulted mostly Romney, "Taking Stock of  Some of the Claims and Counterclaims."

Mitt Romney repeatedly questioned President Obama’s honesty at Wednesday night’s debate -- likening the president and vice president at one point to his five sons repeating things that were not true -- but he made a number of misleading statements himself on the size of the federal deficits, taxes, Medicare and health care.

Among those "misleading statements" was that Obama-care was actually a government takeover of health care. Health care reporter Robert Pear:

The 2010 health care law clearly expands the role of the federal government. But it also builds on the foundation of private health insurance, providing subsidies for millions of low- and moderate-income people to buy private insurance.