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As Democrats and progressives, let’s not kid ourselves about tonight’s debate. Mitt Romney is already the winner. Here’s why: superior stagecraft and tons of money.

Romney’s the winner not necessarily because his arguments were more persuasive. He’s better off merely because he showed up for the first audition and didn’t fall on his face, and the experience will only sharpen his image as a leading man in the next two debates. He’s won because, even if you don’t agree with anything he or his party espouses, Mitt Romney is a super-wealthy individual who appears to have the potential to fill the role one might imagine a Hollywood casting agent would seek for a presidential movie. He’s Michael Douglas with a taller forehead. A latter-day Ronald Reagan with a better command of tax avoidance, if not the delivery of his screenplay’s lines.

Now that Romney was able to stand on a Denver stage side-by-side with the sitting president and be treated with all the respect of that office and that event, undecided viewers, as well as advocates of the president who are professing lower enthusiasm for their choice this election season, received all the visual cues they needed to seriously allow themselves to consider -- perhaps for the first time -- Mitt Romney playing the most influential part any person could assume on the world stage.

Mitt Romney came out the winner Wednesday night because of some major built-in personal advantages he has in approaching these auditions. We have known, for example, that he himself strongly believes in his fitness for the role. He’s been angling for the part since, well, probably from the day his dad, George Romney -- the former head of a Detroit car company (American Motors Corporation), Michigan Republican governor (1963-1969), and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (1969-1973) -- was permanently furloughed on his path to the White House. That happened when George, a leading contender for the presidency in mid-1967, offhandedly described himself as being “brainwashed” by military advisors about the progress of the Vietnam War. It stands as one of the most memorable verbal turds of presidential politics in history, a gaffe heard around the world and certainly one that influenced young Mitt to tenaciously pursue the country’s highest office for much of his adult life. One could argue that George Romney’s famous abject failure back prior to the 1968 presidential primary is the foundation of his son’s passion for the part. Mitt Romney is on a mission, much like “W” was in going after Sadam Hussein, of finishing off what their fathers couldn’t.

Romney was the winner tonight because, despite new attempts at bringing common-sense rules to the 90-minute televised presidential debate format, the very form of formal debates infers a false equivalence that favors the challenger. Tonight’s debate locked the incumbent candidate in a place with no escape route from exposure to fallacious arguments or scripted attacks on his record. That is especially advantageous to Romney in light of this year’s particularly mendacious Republican campaign playbook. For the incumbent standing behind a podium on that stark stage tonight, there was no hunkering down behind the securely locked doors of the White House Situation Room or using the flag-draped backdrops of the office to burnish his message. By nature a cool customer, the president was exposed to subjective comparisons this particular man might certainly wish were ruled off limits: emotion, passion, ideological purity.

Romney and Ryan certainly have been failing -- up until the debate they were anywhere from three to ten points behind in key swing-state polls -- to make any of the G.O.P.’s well-funded scripted distortions of the president’s character or record stick. No matter. With the first debate under his belt, Mitt Romney and his supporters were smiling on the Republican talk-show victory tour on Thursday. Democrats may have had the advantage this summer and early fall, gloating over their opponent’s sliding poll numbers -- amid embarrassing videotaped sideshows showing Clint Eastwood bumbling through an imaginary inquisition of the president on stage at the Republican convention and Romney and Ryan both disparaging a large percentage of Americans as “moochers” and “takers.” The appeal of injustice among middle-class and more privileged whites has had a long history of political success in my lifetime, and it seems this year to have been given a rousing revival among a broad swath of voters who view an African-American president with suspicion if not downright scorn.

As we know from the daily tracking polls, however, Mitt has the support of 40-something percent of Americans who buy into the Romney-Ryan Republican narrative of lowering taxes on the rich purportedly to create jobs for the middle class. Why so many Americans believe that -- despite that very policy’s failure during several Republican administrations during the last 50 years -- is irrelevant, as are the arguments about it one way or the other. The month ahead will only open new opportunities for the Republican party to build their momentum and bring America, perhaps, a rerun of the 2000 election -- close enough to, um, squeak out a victory in November, by hook or by crook.

But, like all successful scripts, the next scenes certainly will come with their share of plot twists. Expect to see a barrage of Republican attack ads that will seek to put the president on the defensive over unemployment and worldwide Muslim unrest, drive up the incumbent’s negative ratings in the polls, and build on Romney’s “good first impression,” freshly viewed. The media will, of course, buy into the excitement of such a tightening race, thereby ensuring its fruition. How much money can we expect the Romney-Ryan campaign and its surreptitious SuperPacs to unleash? No one knows for sure, but with the Supreme Court Citizens United decision clearing the way for unlimited amounts of cash commitments from the wealthy, Republicans like Romney, who promise to permanently lower tax rates on the wealthy, stand to benefit.  “It will be no holds barred on the Republican side,” says a former political director at NBC News, Elizabeth Wilner, who is Campaign Media Analysis Group vice president for Kantar Media, considered to be the second largest global market research company. “All that money the Obama campaign has been expecting Romney to spend on ads will finally start to flow. The Obama campaign is betting on their message, while the Romney campaign is betting on tonnage.”

I hope I’m wrong about this prediction, but I fear I’m not. By Thursday, the presidential reelection campaign will be feeling the full force of the Republican Party’s media carpet bombing and the probable turn of voter sentiments toward their candidate, who, they will argue, they’ve successfully positioned as the “underdog.” The president’s reelection team will be scrambling to come up with a response as the race tightens. Let’s hope our president, with his extensive ground game and political campaign contributions of progressive friends in Hollywood and the business world, steps up his game and delivers a full-throated performance commensurate with the high stakes in this election.

Personally, I’d like to see Barack Obama turn in more scenes like the ones Jimmy Stewart had in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Passionate. Directly attacking the discredited myths baked into the many years of Republican shapeshifting. Confident that this time around, truth and good intentions will win out over lies and evil.

Sounds like a great Hollywood movie in the making, but first we have to make sure we have nailed the script.

Reposted from Liberal Outposts

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