MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Was it debate night or fight night? We'll spend some time talking about that today. Later we'll ask our panel of women commentators, our Beauty Shop Roundtable, for their reactions, and we'll ask them about the latest Chanel No. 5 ad featuring - wait for it - Brad Pitt. That's later.
But we will start with our bipartisan panel of speechwriters. I don't think that there will be any disagreement that it was a lively debate, to put it mildly, where both candidates sought to highlight their differences.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Governor Romney doesn't have a five point plan - he has a one point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.
MITT ROMNEY: My priority is jobs. I know how to make that happen.
MARTIN: After each debate this season we've gone to our next two guests who know a thing or two about the style and substance of political debate. Paul Orzulak was a speechwriter for President Clinton, as well as Al Gore during the 2000 election. He's now a principle in the firm West Wing Writers.
Also with us, Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Welcome back to you both. Thank you for coming.
MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.
PAUL ORZULAK: Good to be back.
MARTIN: So we want to get into some detail in a few minutes and hopefully some of the substance questions. But first I'd like to just get an overall reaction from each of you. Paul, I'll go to you first.
ORZULAK: I think the president clearly performs a lot better at sea level than he does mile high.
ORZULAK: You know, if this Barack Obama showed up two weeks ago, the race would be over. You know, I was the first person to admit that Governor Romney won the previous debate, but every poll that had the president losing two weeks ago had him winning last night. And I think that he looked relaxed. He got more confident as the debate went on, in style and substance both.
And the Governor, on the other hand, I think he introduced us to the new phenomena, which is the Romney face. Every time he was sitting on his stool he wanted to say something or felt like he was cornered, every time he heard no, his body sort of stiffened. Did you notice that?
But on substance, I feel like he didn't have the best night either. On taxes he couldn't explain his plan. On immigration he had it turned back on him. So I feel like it was a feisty debate but I think the president did himself a lot of favors last night.
MARTIN: I don't know. Mary Kate has Mary Kate face. She's like no. No, that's not right at all.
MARTIN: Go ahead, Mary Kate.
CARY: Mary Kate face. I thought Obama certainly improved from last time. He went on the offensive. But really all Mitt Romney needed to do was show that last time was not a fluke.
MARTIN: Last time for himself, you mean.
CARY: For himself was not a fluke. The beauty of last time was voters got 90 minutes uninterrupted to watch Mitt Romney and size him up and what they saw was somebody very different than the person who had been put forward by the Obama campaign in ads or put forward on the nightly news. And that to me explains the momentum shift in the polls, in the swing states, the women.
There was a - polls last night immediately afterwards showing Obama had either won or it was a draw or slightly, things like that, but when you dove down into the numbers and saw that Romney had hands down the advantage amongst these voters who watched on the economy, health care, taxes, the deficit, that says to me if those numbers hold, that momentum shift is going to continue.
MARTIN: What about that? I mean, Paul, Mary Kate's making the point that all Romney had to do was stay credible, and - whereas President Obama had to demonstrate why he deserves another term. And here's an example of that. This is one of the questions from a man named Michael Jones. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)
MICHAEL JONES: Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012? I'm not that optimistic as I was in 2012. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.
MARTIN: And I'll just say it. I think the added oomph there was that Michael Jones is African-American, and that's one of the questions - one of the lingering questions has been it's very clear that African-Americans remain strongly supportive of the president. But is there the same level of enthusiasm and excitement given that African-Americans have also as a group suffered greatly during these difficult economic times? Paul, did he make an effective case for a second term?
ORZULAK: I think he made an effective case for a second term. And the excitement four years ago was an historic excitement and I feel like that will never be repeated no matter who runs again. But look, he's never said that everything is perfect and that we're as back as far as we need to be.
But the question is always, should we go back to the same policies that created the problems in the first place? The president has a record. He's created five million jobs in the last 18 months. And we've done things on health care. He's kept his promises on these things. The economy is coming back slower than everyone had anticipated.
You know, that aside, yes, I think he did make a credible case.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about last night's presidential debate with former presidential speechwriters Paul Orzulak, who worked with the Democrats, and Mary Kate Cary, who worked with Republicans, both of them working with candidates or inhabitants of the White House.
The candidates also talked about immigration for the first time in the debates. I'll just play President Obama first and then we'll talk about Governor Romney's answer as well. So first here's President Obama.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)
OBAMA: If we're going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community. Not after students. Not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families.
MARTIN: And then here's Governor Romney.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)
ROMNEY: We're not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented, illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead, let people make their own choice. And if they find that they can't get the benefits here that they want and they can't find the job they want, then they'll make a decision to go a place where they have better opportunities.
MARTIN: Mary Kate, do you agree that this is an area of trouble for Governor Romney, particularly given that the vast majority of immigrants to the United States over the recent decades have been from Central and South America? Give me your take on his answer.
CARY: First of all, I was really glad the whole subject came up. And I thought it was the best answer I had heard from Mitt Romney on immigration. The rest of the soundbite beyond what you just played, he talked about green cards for Ph.D.s. He talked about no amnesty for illegals. He talked about the verification system.
It was the best explanation for what he really meant by self-deportation. Because I was wondering what that meant, and to me that was a very reasonable answer. He didn't sound extremist. And the president, I thought, was very vulnerable on why didn't he enact comprehensive immigration reform like he promised. I think he's got a big problem with that and didn't have a good answer. He blamed the Republicans.
ORZULAK: I think the governor sounded less extremist last night because he ran away from positions that he took during the Republican primaries. He was much stronger on rounding up 12 million people back in the primaries and talking about: What does self-deportation mean? You make life so miserable for people that they leave?
CARY: Well, I think he was saying don't offer them driver's licenses and free college educations.
ORZULAK: That's not what he said in the Republican primaries though. He was much harder on, you know, making life as miserable as possible so they make the choice to leave.
MARTIN: What about the president? Was he credible on this? He was given - this question has come up before, during the Univision interviews. These were not debates, these were interviews separately with the candidates and they were very tough on the president, saying essentially what Governor Romney said, which is why haven't you moved this bill. Was the president credible?
ORZULAK: I think he was credible. If your standard is one giant bill that takes care of everything, he hasn't done that. If it's 20 other things that make the situation better and put it on the national agenda, yes, he did those. And I think he articulated those last night: more border guards, the whole list that he went through.
But I am glad it was part of the debate as well as - I think women got more of a focus last night, although I love what the Internet did after that binders full of women comment. Somebody within 10 minutes had Patrick Swayze from "Dirty Dancing" saying nobody puts Baby in a binder. They had Ryan Gosling saying: Hey, girl, you know I'd never put you in a binder.
And then there was somebody else that had: Bind her? I just met her. You know.
MARTIN: Explain the comment, please, for people who didn't hear it.
ORZULAK: Last night he was asked about his governorship and he said that there were a lot of men being offered positions and he asked - I want binders full of women. I want more women here.
CARY: Meaning resumes.
ORZULAK: The resumes.
ORZULAK: But it led to some...
MARTIN: Oh, I'm relieved. I'm relieved.
ORZULAK: And my wife actually - actually, it overshadowed the fact that he said my goal is to get women home in time to make dinner. From which I heard my wife from the next room, who I didn't even know was listening, yell: Why can't men make dinner? You know? So there was that moment but...
CARY: Point well taken.
ORZULAK: But you know, and that was - that came on the end of Lily Ledbetter, that, you know, the fairness and that the governor opposes.
MARTIN: Well, to that end, and just - we have a couple of minutes left. So I did want to ask what each of you thought about the format and whether the format advantaged either candidate. So Mary Kate, any sense of whether the format...
CARY: Yeah. I...
MARTIN: Just any - your comments about the format. Did it work? Did it advantage one or the other?
CARY: Right. So U.S. News and World Report has a new thing where I was live blogging. I was watching the Twitter feed. I had emails coming in from girlfriends, and then I had CNN on with the undecided voter, little jiggly thing under the screen. And so I felt like I had a lot of incoming.
And what I noticed was a real gender breakdown. As it got nastier, the men would all say stick it to him, get in his grille, brother, you know, kind of stuff. And the women were all saying, oh, for God's sake. Stop the bickering. These are like children. My sister said it was like the World Wrestling Federation. The women - it turned the women off, and I saw the same thing during the Biden debate. The women did not go for that, and I think they're going to have to start reconsidering some of these formats, because we didn't get to the fiscal cliff. We didn't get to Medicare and Medicaid, stuff like some of the important issues. There was too much bickering to get to it, so...
MARTIN: Paul, I want to hear your take on that.
ORZULAK: You know, no format happens in a vacuum. It always happens in the moment of what each side has to do in that point in the race and, last night, it was odd because we knew going in, they would have to take questions and respond to people, but they would also have to somehow use jiu-jitsu to go after the record of their opponent before pulling back to their plans and they sort of did that in a few cases.
That said, I do think there were revealing moments last night, sort of, when - you know, the governor went after the president on Benghazi and, you know, we've been saying for months and months, you know, that the governor will say anything to get elected and to be fact-checked in the moment, I think, said a lot about that moment.
And, frankly, you know, I saw that Donald Rumsfeld's former chief of staff called that an epic whiff on the part of Governor Romney that they've been building this case 90 days and that, you know, in one moment, it was gone and...
MARTIN: What about - do you credit Mary Kate's analysis on the gender gap in a way? You might attract some, but you turn off others?
ORZULAK: Frankly, I think it's why women make better leaders, anyway, because, you know, I mean, I think - I've written a lot of speeches about this, that women are more inclined to look for a consensus, to build bridges, to actually have conversations.
But, you know, on the other side of it, this is our politics right now. Right? This is why the country's evenly divided. People feel very passionate about things they believe and, when you put them both on stage for 90 minutes, they're going to disagree passionately.
MARTIN: Well, and - OK. Interesting. One more debate. It's next Monday. Just briefly - oh, Paul, I gave you the first word, so I'm going to give Mary Kate the last word. What are we looking for next week?
ORZULAK: Oh, a foreign policy debate next week with Bob Schieffer, who tends to keep the conversation going. If I'm Republicans, I'm worried that it's foreign policy because the governor and Paul Ryan, the week before, you know, have proven pretty weak on foreign policy. You know, if I'm giving the governor advice, I would tell him, pivot as quickly as you can back to the economy, back to your wheelhouse. That's his most effective moment last night. Get back to be strong abroad, we need to be strong at home. He's got to pivot next week if he hopes to have, you know, a good debate.
MARTIN: Mary Kate, final thought?
CARY: I agree. I don't think we're going to see a swing and a miss again next week on the Libya question. I think Mitt Romney's going to come loaded for bear because he knows the president is very vulnerable on this question. The best moments last night, for Romney, were on the economy. The best moments for the president were on foreign policy. And the question is, which is more important to voters? And so the more Romney can keep it on the economy next week, I think it's going to be in his wheelhouse. Exactly.
MARTIN: That was Mary Kate Cary. She is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a blogger and columnist for U.S. News and World Report. Also joining us, Paul Orzulak. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton, as well as Al Gore, during the 2000 election. He's now founding principle of West Wing Writers and they were both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Thank you both so much once again.
ORZULAK: Thanks, Michel. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.