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Will the first presidential debate tip the election scales?

The performances in the first presidential debate of the election season may seal the political fate of Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama on Tuesday, according to a trio of Northeastern University experts in media and politics.

“Romney would owe a victory in Tuesday’s election in large part to his successful performance in the first debate,” noted Robert Gilbert, the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science.

“Romney was aggressive and established himself as a leader,” he said. “Obama was articulate, but seemed strangely removed from the environment.”

Gilbert shared his expertise in presidential politics with students, faculty and staff in a panel discussion last Wednesday afternoon in 220 Shillman Hall. The event also featured remarks by journalism professors Alan Schroeder and Dan Kennedy and was organized by the Department of Political Science as part of its Campaign 2012 Discussion Series.

Schroeder, an expert in televised debates, panned Obama’s performance as one of the “biggest debate losses in history,” but praised Romney’s business-like approach to winning over undecided voters.

“Romney is at heart a salesman and in the first debate he was out there making a sale,” Schroeder explained.

“Debates are live TV blockbusters first and serious policy discussions second,” he added. “They are tests of temperament and personality and give the audience a chance to judge how candidates would behave under enormous pressure and stress.”

Kennedy agreed with Schroeder’s assessment of the first debate, calling it a “major turning point” in the presidential election, but questioned whether the mainstream media influenced the public’s perception of the contest’s outcome.

“Low-information voters form their opinions through the media, not by sitting down to watch a debate for 90 minutes,” said Kennedy, an expert in news reporting and analysis.

He noticed a change in the way the mainstream media characterized Romney after the Republican candidate’s strong showing in the first debate. “The media stopped mocking him as a sure loser,” Kennedy said. “I think the mainstream media tend to find there is a higher price to pay for going after Republican candidates when the right-wing noise machine is pushing back,” he added.

Schroeder noted social media’s “potentially dangerous” influence on debate coverage. Referencing an article in The Washington Post, he said, “Journalists weren’t watching the debates. They were watching what their colleagues were writing on Twitter and reinforcing their conclusions.”