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A civil first debate

The old caution, "Be careful what you wish for because you may get it," certainly applied to the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney. It was civil, respectful and generally devoid of frivolous personal attacks that sometimes have marred the seriousness of these events.

The tone and the tolerant moderating by PBS anchor Jim Lehrer gave the two nominees sufficient freedom to press their lines of argument without the debate turning into a circus. And the focus was largely kept on the intended subject of the economy. Within that framework, Mr. Romney was able to reinforce his contention that Mr. Obama had failed to lift the nation from its fiscal and unemployment doldrums, holding the incumbent president on the defensive much of the time.

Both men took liberties with the facts as the 90 minutes ground on, and the debate in general was more a seminar than riveting television entertainment. Mr. Obama assumed a professorial posture as Mr. Romney wore a presidential cloak that served him well in the battle of public perceptions.

Before the debate, Mr. Romney's campaign was widely seen to be on the skids because of polls and his closed-door gaffe in which he dismissed nearly half of the electorate as willingly dependent on the other half. So he took the stage with low expectations and easily exceeded them with a confident marshalling of his case as a successful businessman who knew how to set a better course.

Mr. Obama for his own reasons elected to eschew further recitation of Mr. Romney's already widely disseminated gaffe, or of his continued refusal to make fuller disclosure of past income tax returns. Instead, the president sought to punch holes in Mr. Romney's claim that by ending tax loopholes for the rich he could harness the climbing federal deficit.

The challenger blandly brushed aside Mr. Obama's charge, supported by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, that Mr. Romney's approach would create $5 trillion of more debt. He insisted he had no such scheme. In this and other statements, the former Massachusetts governor seemed to morph back into the posture of moderation that had marked his successful tenure in that demonstrably liberal state.

Having survived the primary-campaign gantlet of tea party activists and other conservative voters by selling himself as one of them, Mr. Romney took pains for once to accept credit for his health-care reform in Massachusetts, described by Mr. Obama as the model for his own Affordable Care Act.

While insisting he would still get rid of "Obamacare" if elected, Mr. Romney acknowledged that he would include the features in it that have already proved to be popular with many voters, such as care for pre-existing medical conditions and protection for under-27 dependent children.

In all, it was a transparent bid to reach out to undecided independent and more moderate Republicans as well as disaffected Democrats. At the same time, Mr. Romney continued to pay lip service to the general conservative gospel that still provides the core philosophy of his party. Mr. Obama was left to argue that this particular leopard does change his spots as the political reality dictates.

From the immediate public pulse-taking, Mr. Romney appears for the time being to have pulled a political Houdini, escaping from the chains of pessimistic assessments drawn from his pre-debate slippage in the polls and his most recent case of foot-in-mouth disease.

For once, in light of Mr. Romney's impressive showing in the first debate, the second presidential confrontation Oct. 16 in a town-meeting format is likely see little audience falloff. The next time, the spotlight may well be on Mr. Obama to see whether he will assume a more aggressive posture. In any event, the presence of questioners in the audience raises the prospect that issues like Mr. Romney's taxes and derision of the now-infamous "47 percent" of Americans who don't take sufficient responsibility for their own lives will not go undiscussed.

For now, the American public can be heartened that after all the mud-slinging that has dominated the 2012 campaign, and is likely to continue in the huge television advertising by both sides, the civility of Wednesday night's exercise has set a higher bar for the debates to come this month.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at

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