A Puzzled George Stephanopoulos Wonders: 'Where Was the President?' Where Was the Fight?'

A puzzled George Stephanopoulos on Thursday wondered what happened to Barack Obama during the previous night's presidential debate. Talking to fellow Democrat Donna Brazile on Good Morning America, the host quizzed, "...A lot of the President's supporters, you see it on Twitter and in the blogs, you heard it on television last night, where was the president? Where was the fight?"

Brazile stayed on message, only allowing that Obama was "a little rusty." But Stephanopoulos worried, "But at least a lot of those early polls of the viewers who watched said that the President lost." In a tease for the show, Stephanopoulos speculated, "Did Romney turn the race around?"

Good Morning America reporter Jake Tapper was even more blunt. He noted, "Obama campaign officials conceding that Romney seemed more polished. They say they expect he will get a bump in the polls. Some Obama allies telling me that the President last night seemed tired and bored."

On Wednesday night, Stephanopoulos broke from his streak of declaring Democrats the winner in eight of the last nine presidential debates. The former Bill Clinton operative actually praised, "I think Governor Romney definitely more crisp in his presentation tonight....he was able to be aggressive without being offensive."

A transcript of one of the October 4 segments can be found below.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's get the view from our insiders team of insiders right now. Matthew Dowd has worked for both Democrats and Republicans, including George W. Bush. Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore, other Democratic candidates. Nicolle Wallace, who worked for President Bush and the McCain/Palin ticket. And Matthew, let me begin with you. Right now, clearly, Mitt Romney came in, spent a lot of time preparing for this and it paid off.

MATT DOWD: Yeah. He actually made the right decision. There was some criticism that he wasn't doing enough events going in. That he was spending too much time on debate prep. But they made the calculation which was accurate that moments like this can wipe the slate clean of what's going on in the last month. Barack Obama had a great month and a half, but in one 90-minute period, this race went from a slight Obama lead to a dead-even race. And I think by the time you wake up on by Monday morning, this race will be tied.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And a lot of people wondering, Donna, a lot of the President's supporters, you see it on Twitter and in the blogs, you heard it on television last night, where was the president? Where was the fight?

DONNA BRAZILE: Well, he was a little rusty. After four years, he hasn't been in a one-on-one kind of debate setting in a long time. But, look, I think the President won on poise. He won on grace. He won on substance. Mitt Romney came to play hard ball and it showed. Mitt Romney was on the attack. He was on the offensive. At the same time, he didn't really land any big punches on President Obama. And President Obama left a lot of, what I call, some of the good stuff in the locker room. So, we'll see more of that next time.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But at least a lot of those early polls of the viewers who watched said that the President lost.

BRAZILE: Well, look, losing on attacks will not hurt the president with the American people who want to hear the substance. What are you going to do for us in the future? I think on those grounds, President Obama did not lose the debate.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Nicolle Wallace, this is so much like what happened to one of your former bosses, President George W. Bush, back in 2004. John Kerry came in to the debates behind. Took it to the President. The President recovered over the next few debates. So, what does the President's team say to him this morning?

NICOLLE WALLACE: Well, it's a dicey thing. It's easy to forget that these men are human beings and they're demoralized by a bad night. They are buoyed by a great night. So, you know, you have got to build them back up. And the reality sets in pretty immediately, for any candidate. They know when they've done a bad job. They know when they've done a good job. The good news for Romney is he didn't just do himself a world of good with Republicans. Republicans feel like we have a guy that can win this. He managed to frame the debate in a way that does a world of good with independent voters, with people still making up their mind by framing this election as a choice and, really, a philosophical debate with the specifics right underneath him, the way we know that Romney can do about the role in government in American life, which is something that Republicans have felt would put Romney on solid ground.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And he did seem, Matthew Dowd, for the first time to reach beyond that conservative base and really talked to independents about issues they care about, for example health care. Did a good job of defending his health care in Massachusetts.

DOWD: Well, absolutely. I think ultimately, they were speaking to persuadable voters or undecided voters. But, the Republicans will get more and more enthusiastic, the interesting thing as the poll numbers change, as Mitt Romney starts to take leads in some of these battleground states, which my expectation he will, based on last night. It's not over, a close race. The other thing that happened last night, which is a big part of this, is there's been two factors at play. There's been the environment of the country, the large number of people that think we're on the wrong track. And the perceptions and images of the candidates.  Each had an advantage. What happens last night is on the images of the candidates and perceptions of the candidates. Mitt Romney evened that ground. And when that happens, people say, "Well, since they're both roughly even, we're on the wrong track, why wouldn't I take a chance on the new guy?" And that's, I think, the difficult side that President Obama has to get. He has to turn this around. First person to do that is President Biden. That's the next stop, but after that, it's the debates.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And so, he has got two more coming up. So, Donna, let me ask you this. Same question I asked Nicolle. You're in the room with President Obama today. What do you tell him?

BRAZILE: Mr. President, get a good night's sleep. Have that anniversary champagne. But guess what? You have two more debates. Look up and give it to Mitt Romney. Also, defend Big Bird next time.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org