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Originally published October 4, 2012 at 4:06 PM | Page modified October 4, 2012 at 4:06 PM

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The presidential debate: Mr. Disengaged vs. the Energizer Bunny

It is not always what you say, but how you say it, writes Lynne K. Varner. President Obama and Mitt Romney said a lot during Wednesday night’s debate, but how they said it matters most for now.

Times editorial columnist

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Anyone remember what President Obama said during Wednesday’s less-than exciting debate? Me neither. But do you remember how he said the things we no longer remember?

Yep, me too. I remember every verbal inflection and soothing cadence, tones better left to National Public Radio.

Cool and collected is what got Obama elected. His ability to stay above the fray was attractive to an America on the verge of panic.

But Mr. Cool turned into Mr. Remote and had a lot of America reaching for one. Mitt Romney was the Energizer Bunny. He was aggressive and quick with Reaganesque rejoinders. One humiliating example: The GOP nominee compared Obama to one of his five sons fibbing yet again in the hopes his parents will believe it this time.

Was it me, or did our president shrink in that moment to the size of a recalcitrant millennial? The leader of the most powerful nation cannot allow himself to be diminished by comparisons to one of the Romney boys excusing a dent in the family Beemer!

Unsurprisingly, Romney received a nice boost in the polls following the debate. CNN polled 430 adults who watched and found 67 percent of them thought Romney won, while only 25 percent picked Obama. Just over a third said they were now more likely to vote for Romney, nearly one in five said the same thing about Obama and 47 percent said neither.

Romney said nothing Wednesday night that he hadn’t said before, so I suspect the bump shows Americans like their politicians confident, assertive and plain-speaking.

Disagreement with me is reflected in our online commentary, where readers of the Opinion Page say Romney won because of substance — compelling vision and ideas. Obama supporters say their candidate lost because he delved into the policy weeds and stayed there. In other words, he lost on style, not substance. I agree.

If I were plotting debate tactics for both candidates, I’d advise Obama to shed the verbal rope-a-dope strategy. Bobbing and weaving puts you on the defensive, not very executive-looking. I’m not saying get angry. Get animated. The most successful president in recent American history was Bill Clinton. That guy could get animated about lunch.

Romney: hang with the hammering-man strategy. Its obviously working. But get on the defensive because you have a lot to explain, the infamous 47 percent remark for starters.

I was encouraged to hear both respond to questions about jobs and the economy with cogent visions for public education — an important link that needs to be made more often.

But I wished they had delved into other issues, such as mental health and caring for our veterans.

Two presidential debates are left. They represent the remaining chances to capture tens of millions of viewers at once. Beware that many click onto the debate temporarily, en route to finding “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo” or other television fare.

You will not have some of these folks for very long. Shelve the history of American energy policy and the promise or failure of Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform. Get crisp and concise.

The Times Editorial Board interviewed 170 candidates for Congress, governor, the Legislature and the courts. The value of these endorsement meetings is to hear the candidates’ vision for our community but also to take their measure in person.

There was the guy who had to be asked, repeatedly, to take out his ear buds so he could converse with us or at least hear the questions. Another time, a candidate grew so angry he had to be escorted out. And there was the woman who quoted repeatedly from the Bible.

I wish those candidates remembered what I’m sure their mother once told them: It is not always what you say, but how you say it. President Obama and Mitt Romney said a lot during the debate, but how they said it matters most for now.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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