Editor's note: Alan Schroeder, a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, is the author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV." Join him for a live Facebook discussion on Thursday Oct. 4 from noon to 1 p.m. ET on what are the best moments in the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.
(CNN) -- Incumbent presidents often take it on the chin when they return to the debate stage after a four-year absence. Wednesday night in Denver added another such instance to the history books. It's not that Mitt Romney was particularly stellar, but rather that President Obama fell short.
In an untested format for presidential debates, with two-minute opening statements followed by open-ended discussion, the candidates found themselves having to move fast and think on their feet. On this point, Romney came across as the more nimble performer. He seemed alert to his surroundings in a way that Obama was not.
Still, for both candidates, the long weeks of intense coaching stood in the way of genuine dialogue. Each man appeared so intent on regurgitating his canned lines that direct interaction took a back seat. Despite the best efforts of moderator Jim Lehrer to get the candidates to talk to each other, they too often engaged in parallel monologues. For both candidates this meant passing up a huge opportunity.
Consider a few specific moments from the debate.
Romney's reference to having learned about fibbing from his five boys represents a classic of debate prep: the premeditated one-liner that combines a positive statement about its speaker (in this case, I'm a family man and a wise parent) with a smackdown of the opponent (don't believe what Obama and Biden have been saying about me.) This double-pronged approach offered Romney a way to call his opponent a liar with a coating of sugar on top. Whether or not the ploy actually worked rests with the beholder, but Romney deserves credit for successfully shoehorning the line into this debate.
Obama's response was to smile, which is fine. But it would have been much more effective for him to come back with a line of his own (citing his own experience as a parent, for example) as a means of reminding everyone that Romney was not the only dad on the stage. Obama should never have let himself be compared to a naughty child.
Romney's line about Big Bird is one of those pop cultural references that politicians like to drop because they think it makes them sound in touch with average citizens. In this case, however, the attempt backfired on Romney. Why? Because he cited the Sesame Street stalwart as a symbol of excessive government spending. You can mess with a lot of things in America, but entire generations of voters have grown up with Big Bird.
Other, less cherished totems of federal overspending would have better served the candidate as negative object lessons. Romney somewhat redeemed himself by explaining that he does not want to borrow money from China to pay for PBS. Nonetheless, Big Bird should be off limits.
Romney has made cultural allusions in debates past, from George Costanza on Seinfeld to Al Gore inventing the Internet, with equally clunky results. It's time to drop these references from his repertoire.
Oversight of Wall Street was a potential arrow in Obama's quiver, yet even as he made his case, the president's heart did not seem to be into it. Strangely, for someone so practiced at the mechanics of television, Obama had difficult maneuvering the cameras. He delivered the "does anybody think?" part of the message directly to camera, but when he reached the payoff, "then Governor Romney is your candidate," Obama looked away from the lens.
This was a rookie mistake and something of a surprise from someone so well versed in using the camera as a communication tool.
Inevitably, the president was going to bring up Romney's health care program in Massachusetts during this face-off, so for debate-watchers it was just a question of how adequately Romney would defend himself. Thanks to his opponent, he got a little help right out of the gate. Obama's request of Romney that he "please elaborate" dripped with gratuitous sarcasm, and Obama immediately followed the crack with a smile about twice as large as it needed to be, a smile consisting mostly of gritted teeth.
Romney's defense of his Massachusetts record supplied the Republican nominee with one of his stronger moments of the night. He managed to spin Romneycare not as evidence of flip-flopping, but as an example of his ability to work in a bipartisanship fashion. Aimed straight at independents, this was a signal Romney needed to send, and the look on Obama's face suggests that he knew the governor had gotten the better of him.
For President Obama, this critique of Romney was one of his sharper lines of the night. Yet it came as the final response before the candidates' closing statements, far too late in the process to do him much good. The point Obama was making, that a president must hold true to his beliefs, is a valid one. Still, it could have been made even more forcefully had Obama raised it earlier, in a way that placed Romney into a defensive crouch.
In short, this was a better debate for Romney than for Obama. But as sometimes happens with first debates, the entire event felt a little wobbly.
Let's hope that by the time Round 2 rolls around, the candidates will have gotten beyond their opening-night jitters, beyond the mysteries of the format and beyond being overprogrammed by their coaches.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Schroeder.