Ann McFeatters - Romney pulls an October surprise

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Isn't politics fun! We've been expecting an October surprise, and we got one!

The Mitt Romney who demolished President Barack Obama in their first debate of the general-election season wasn't the same candidate at all who has been campaigning for president for the last six years.

Romney was no longer the man whose wealth isolates him from the middle class, pays only 13 percent in taxes, ridicules the 47 percent who owe no federal taxes, disdains public servants such as teachers, outsources jobs overseas, owns offshore bank accounts, promises tax cuts for the wealthy, calls corporations people and vows to gut "Obamacare."

Debate Romney was an engaging guy who repeatedly vowed to end the misery of the middle class. What's not to like?

It turns out Bumbling Romney was preparing all along to come out swinging as Moderate Romney, catching a sluggish Obama totally off guard.

There was Obama, prepared to argue that Romney's across-the-board 20 percent tax-cut pledge would cost $5 trillion (which it would), when Romney gob-smacked him by insisting he had made no such pledge. (Because he would offset it by still-unexplained loopholes and cuts to popular tax deductions such as home-mortgage interest.)

Likewise, Romney was suddenly finding nice things to say about Obamacare, such as its ban on denying insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions and its coverage of children until age 26 by their parents' policies.

Suddenly, Romney was not castigating Obama for all regulations, but insisting that some, such as moderate restrictions on Wall Street, are very good indeed.

Suddenly, Romney was appealing not to his conservative base, but to swing voters! Obama was so taken aback that all he could do was look down at his lectern or gaze beseechingly at moderator Jim Lehrer. (Lehrer, for his part, was completely rolled over by Romney. This will be Lehrer's last debate.)

Obama, who was eager to guard his likability factor by not seeming angry or fed up with Romney's unreliable math or dismissive of Romney's lack of specifics, clearly would rather have been out celebrating his 20th anniversary with Michelle than on the stage debating Romney. He would have been better off if he had done so. He came off as tired, disgruntled and grim.

But at the end of the night, it was a needed civics lesson. Here were two intelligent men starting to talk about serious issues in a civil way. True, both skirted specifics. True, there were zingers (Romney saying Obama might have a free house and limo, but not a free license to his own facts; Obama noting that Romney said "never mind" to 18 months of pledging tax cuts). But overall, it was refreshing to listen to each man's beliefs about government's role in our lives. I want more!

It was also pleasant not to have the omnipresent consultants, campaign staffers and surrogates gumming up the works for 90 minutes. Just the two candidates, verbally duking it out. I want more!

Some pundits complained that the debate was too wonkish, too "in the weeds." I didn't think so. These are complicated issues, and more Americans should know that Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson came up with a complicated and harsh -- but possibly effective -- plan to get our fiscal house in order. We should examine it. Romney and Obama should debate it. I want more!

We don't want an election where the candidates just mail it in. We want them slugging it out. We want to know who they are and how they would govern over the next four years. The next debate, between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, will be fascinating, but the main event is still the confrontation between Obama and Romney. I want more!

If Romney had lost the first debate, he would have lost the election. Now he's back in the race, and we have a contest with real differences. October just got a whole lot more interesting.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.)

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