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There was a long pregame show, extensive postgame analysis, and of course a competitive contest in between, pitting reigning champ Barack Obama against challenger Mitt Romney.

All that was missing, in the metamorphosis from political coverage into sports, was a Roman numeral after the debate, and the flash of light bulbs at the opening kickoff.

Because CNN has had its problems the last few years — and an event such as the first presidential debate should be a prime vehicle for a cable-news network that seeks to position itself down the middle — I chose to watch them for part of the pre-coverage and the main telecast. And yet again, I found the channel committing the kind of unforced errors that make it such a ripe target for satirists such as "The Daily Show."

CNN seems to specialize in toys that add color but no context to the screen. Perhaps that's an attempt to compensate for how colorless many of its top staffers are.

So CNN ran a clock, showing how long each man had spoken. A fever chart crawled across the bottom of the screen, reflecting dial responses by undecided voters in Colorado. All that was missing was how many first downs each of them had, and whether Romney's ground game was breaching Obama's defense. (Of course, none of that was as silly, as "American Idol"-like, as the pre-debate interviews with the candidates' wives.)

As for the debate itself, while the men expressed strong differences of opinion on policy, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a memorable moment.

Romney sought to be combative, but if he famously spent time practicing zingers, precious few of them materialized. As for Obama, he stuck to his pattern of being wonky and long-winded — and resisted teeing off when the challenger, so reluctant to release his tax returns, made a reference to needing a better accountant.

In terms of visual imagery and body language, the one thing that really stood out to me was Romney's completely blank expression — frozen on his face — whenever Obama was speaking. I'm sure he was coached not to react, but the look felt plucked out of Disney's animatronic Hall of Presidents, or Woody Allen listening to that comic in "Annie Hall."

The biggest loser, perception-wise, was PBS' Jim Lehrer. Certainly no stranger to moderating debates , he allowed the two contenders to express their views to a fault, and essentially gave up in terms of any effort to rein in the content or duration of their answers. If there was any challenging going to be done, any follow-up questioning, it would have to come from the opponent — or wait for the fact-checking process that follows.

Frankly, if this had been a football game, it would have been a 9-6 affair, with the sides trading field goals, and Obama — holding the lead — doing all he could to run out the clock.

The other big surprise, in media terms, was how definitive the verdict was from most of the CNN pundits. Even if Romney "won" the debate on points, in TV terms this was a bland performance on both sides — and Romney seemed indifferent to whether his statements might dovetail, or not, with his past positions.

Simply put, I can't imagine a more useless cacophony of voices than the post-debate analysis on CNN. A severe outbreak of Blitzeritis all around.

But to quote a popular media term, there was nothing approaching a "game-changer" on Wednesday night. As for picking the winner, that's between you, and the annoying political pundits of your choice.

 

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