Governor Mitt Romney set a number of traps during the debate last night, but they didn't target President Obama. Rather, Romney steered himself into a series of tricky, but potentially avoidable, situations.
Just seven minutes into the debate, the first follow-up question asked by the moderator Candy Crowley should have been a home run for Romney: "What about those long-term unemployed who need a job right now?" While Romney began by attacking the President's record on job creation, he pivoted and spent nearly half of his answer talking about the automotive bailout, saying, "the president took Detroit bankrupt." Therefore, instead of forcing the President to talk about long-term unemployment, Romney invited him to highlight one of the strongest parts of his first term resume: saving the auto industry. The President charged, "what Governor Romney said just isn't true. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open. And we would have lost a million jobs."
Governor Romney also laid the groundwork for one of the President's best "zingers." Close to five minutes and two voter questions after the President attacked Romney for investing in "companies that were pioneers of outsourcing to China," Romney abruptly restarted that discussion. He asked, "Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?" It prompted this quick jab from President Obama: "I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long." Not only did that exchange remind voters of Romney's overseas investments, but it allowed the President to portray Romney as wealthy and out-of-touch.
And then there's the "47%" comment. The issue hadn't come up in more than 90 minutes of debate -- until Romney's closing answer, that is. Unprompted, Romney said, "I care about 100 percent of the American people." President Obama had the last word, and jumped all over that comment, sealing his resurgent debate performance with a discussion of Romney's biggest gaffe: "I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility -- think about who he was talking about."
Perhaps President Obama had already planned to close with this attack line -- but Romney teed it up for him, and legitimized his decision to "go there."
It was one more unforced error in a debate where neither candidate could afford many mistakes.