SAN DIEGO -- Is it possible that Barack Obama was actually sharper, hungrier and more focused in his answers four years ago when he first ran for president than he is now as the incumbent?
We know the office turns one's hair gray, but does it also drain one's red blood cells? Or maybe Obama's anemic performance in the first presidential debate was, as former Vice President Al Gore suggested during a post-debate analysis on Current TV, a result of the thin air in Denver "when you go to 5,000 feet and you only have a few hours to adjust."
Obama's energy level may have been down, but his hackles were up. He seemed visibly irritated spending his 20th wedding anniversary having his record challenged by Mitt Romney. He had better get used to it. There are two more debates and more challenges to come. Obama still needs to answer for his double-talk on immigration, his failures on foreign policy and his apparent disregard for the value of private enterprise.
In a presidential debate, little things matter. George H.W. Bush looking at his watch. Gore sighing. In Denver, without a teleprompter to guide him, Obama looked down at the podium much of the time -- providing a stark contrast with Romney, who looked directly at his opponent. When Obama spoke, Romney smiled. When Romney spoke, Obama smirked. In fact, the Republican National Committee already has an ad out titled "Smirk."
The consensus among political observers is that Romney won the debate. But there was no knockout punch. Why not?
Each man has provided his opponent with piles of ammunition. Obama could have pounced on Romney's offensive claim that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and see themselves as victims. Romney could have mentioned a newly resurfaced video of a speech Obama gave in 2007 where he seems to play the race card by implying that African-American victims of Hurricane Katrina were treated worse than victims of other catastrophes.
Those punches were never thrown as the candidates opted instead to engage in a wonkish discussion of whose economic plan would do the most good for the most Americans. All that was lacking were pie charts.
There is a time for wonkish talk -- in talk radio interviews, during town hall meetings, etc. But it's not when your opponent is standing right in front of you. That's when you look him in the eye and take the fight to him.
With the exception of a few early flare-ups over the economy, neither Romney nor Obama seemed ready to do battle. That was odd. We know these guys can fight. Look at what Romney did to his primary opponents -- Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum. Remember how Obama went after Hillary Clinton in 2008, dismissing her as "likable enough"?
This time, there were few zingers. Just an abundance of politeness. The candidates spent more time auditioning for the audiences than they did engaging one another.
When you listen to what these two men say about one another on the stump, or in media interviews, it's clear that they don't like each other. But it was hard to detect that in Denver. It makes for good manners but doesn't help Americans decide who will be a good president. That comes from drawing contrasts with your opponent.
When Obama and Romney meet again on Oct. 16 in a town hall-style debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., let's hope they look each other in the eye, go on the attack, get in each other's faces. We've heard the figures. Now, let's have the fireworks.
And a tad more honesty. In the post-debate analysis, the Obama team was aghast that Romney could, as they saw it, stand up on that stage and lie. He changed his positions on the spot, they said.
Say it isn't so. Do you mean politicians do this sort of thing? In June, an Obama campaign ad accusing Romney of being a "corporate raider" was awarded four "Pinocchios" by the Washington Post column "The Fact Checker." In September, Obama got another four Pinocchios for his claim that 90 percent of the current deficit is due to the economic policies of his predecessor.
Well, given the ease with which Romney abandoned his own proposals and reinvented himself yet again, Pinocchio may have met his match.
Ruben Navarrette's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group