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Originally published October 3, 2012 at 10:30 PM | Page modified October 4, 2012 at 9:51 AM

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Lehrer's lack of control of debate may have led to more depth, says UW lecturer

A communications lecturer at the University of Washington comments on the presidential candidates' debate performances.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Viewers of the first debate between President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney weren't treated to sound bites or gotcha moments throughout its 90-minute broadcast Wednesday night.

Matt McGarrity, a communication studies senior lecturer at the University of Washington, called broadcast journalist Jim Lehrer's control of the debate weak. That allowed the candidates' quick back-and-forth exchanges in which they discussed their policy theories in detail, he said — maybe too much detail for someone who wasn't following the debate closely.

"It didn't sound like rambling to me at all — I think (the format) rewarded attention and diligence but punished hop-in viewing," McGarrity said. "If you popped into the debate, you weren't coming into the pool at the 2-foot side."

McGarrity couldn't say who he thought won the debate, though. While Romney started off strong and forceful by refuting almost everything Obama said, he didn't do as well as Obama in summing up how his policies fit into a specific plan, he said.

"Romney didn't quite walk out of the detail enough and offer a summary, and Obama did, often," McGarrity said.

He did think Romney started out stronger than the president, though.

"Romney came out of the gate really going after Obama," McGarrity said. "And then you see in the split screen Obama's rather lackadaisical look."

McGarrity also thought Romney began each opportunity to speak with a clear picture of what Obama assertions he was refuting, while Obama would respond generally and then make the differences between Romney and himself more specific.

"Romney was good at driving toward detail, but didn't offer as much context as Obama did," McGarrity said.

While critical views of both candidates' styles abounded after the debate on political pundit shows and social media, McGarrity thought Lehrer's way of fading into the background offered a debate performance that had more depth than most presidential debates since the Commission on Presidential Debates was created in the 1980s.

"Romney was literally enumerating the differences between the candidates often. Romney didn't drop a lot of Obama arguments — nothing got a pass," McGarrity said. "We want that. It was a productive debate despite the fact that the moderator was run over — he's got to have cleat marks on the back of his head now."

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

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