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Why the Obama-Romney debate was a big fat yawn

The TV networks in the US all talked of fact checking the presidential debate, with the hosts for the first outing, NBC, even boasting a "truth squad".

There's really very little point in worrying about facts - the candidates certainly don't, and the voters don't either.

Assuming you could have made head or tail of any of Wednesday night's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, you'd come away with two overwhelming "facts": there were too many numbers to mean anything, and Jim Lehrer was just awful as a moderator.

The news veteran let Romney walk all over him, repeatedly taking the last word on subjects when it should have been Obama's, very much letting the Republican candidate dictate the terms of the interaction.

Watching the debate amongst Americans for the first time, that was my overwhelming sense - this was a debate without direction. The plethora of numbers added to the mess. Claims and counter claims tried to convince the voting public that someone had a good idea of how to fix the economy, without addressing the white elephant in the room (i.e. that Americans prefer to buy cheap goods from China, so won't change their ways to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US).

Did this presidential debate really matter? Getty Images

The debate was all over the place as both candidates returned to whatever talking points they worked out with their handlers. Romney was more successful in making a critique of the president, without really explaining any specific alternatives. Obama came across more professorial, a criticism he's faced in the past.

"Obama looks like a dying man - he looks ill," said an onlooker next to me.

"It's all bullshit," said another.

Romney had to prove more in the first debate, after lurching unsuccessfully so far in the campaign. By performing competently, he won. It wasn't a decisive victory, but he still came out on top. With Obama ahead in the polls, the president took the safe option. He won't be able to do that again without looking weak.

But the more important conclusion you have to draw from the first debate is a different set of numbers. Obsession with polling data is as bad as it ever was. I've said before that the US is undemocratic in defining the winner according to the best total state results. You don't have to win a national majority, simply the correct set of states, thanks to the absurdity of the electoral college system.

Just to prove the point, the first debate was in Colorado, technically a "swing state", though it has appeared fairly secure for the Obama camp so far. In the current system, swing states are what either candidate need to win the White House. But it should be an insult to the rest of the country that their votes are dismissed effectively as meaningless. The debates won't change the status of the "secure" Obama or Romney states. Similarly, they won't change the minds of the voters who have already made up their minds.

This brings us back to the swing states, and their undecided voters. Did Romney win them round on Wednesday? He may have convinced some, or many, to give him a second look. The only data we will have will be polls, and those are virtually worthless compared to the one that matters on election day.

It is sad that both men seem content merely to convince the undecided Americans, rather than all of America that they should be the leader for the next four years. Neither won on that front. If there isn't a president at one of these debates, then don't expect much leadership within America, or beyond, for the next four years.

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