If Mitt Romney gained stature by sharing the stage comfortably with President Obama in two debates now, he did it again Thursday night at the annual Al Smith dinner, where prominent Catholics gather to honor the first Catholic to be nominated for president.
Romney's 10-minute spiel was ably delivered, with well-timed lines that evoked repeated rounds of laughter from a politically mixed audience that included Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president, CBS anchor Katie Couric, and MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews. And those were just the ones visible on camera behind the speakers.
"President Obama and I are very lucky to have one person who’s always in our corner, someone who we can lean on and someone who is a comforting presence without whom we wouldn’t be able to go another day. I have my beautiful wife, Ann. He has Bill Clinton."
"Usually when I get invited to gatherings like this, it's just to be the designated driver," Romney said.
Romney's comedic timing was excellent. He knew when to pause and let the laughter wash through the crowd, and he knew how to use a pause to let a joke take hold.
"Of course, rules of fairness have to be enforced," Romney said, "because, what other safeguards do we have besides the press." At that point, Romney paused just long enough for everyone to realize that was already his punch line. Finally, it took hold, and an appreciative second wave of applause swept through.
He doesn't complain about media bias, Romney said. "I recognize that they have their job to do and I have my job to do. My job is to lay out a positive vision for the future of the country. And their job is to make sure no one else finds out about it."
"I have already seen early reports from tonight’s dinner," Romney said. "Headline: ‘Obama Embraced by Catholics, Romney Dines with Rich People.'"
Taking a jab Obama's embrace of the latest job numbers, he suggested a slogan for Obama: "You're better off now than you were four weeks ago."
Very few of Romney's comments were self-deprecating, as is often the case in an event like this. Almost all were very thinly veiled jabs at either the president or the media, but all were delivered with great aplomb and confidence.
Romney was roasting his two antagonists, not himself, and they both — the president, and the media represented by Matthews and Couric — had the good humor to applaud.
For his part, Obama was good, but he did lack the quick rhythm and command Romney showed, and Obama could not keep a straight face in his delivery, often trying to suppress a laugh as he delivered his punch line. In contrast, Romney never once broke character in delivering his lines straight.
"New Yorkers have a big choice to make. You have decide which one of us you want holding up traffic for the next four years," Obama said.
"As some of you may have noticed, I had a lot more energy in our second debate," Obama said, "I felt really well-rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate."
This was one of several jabs he made at his first debate performance.
"I want to apologize to Chris Matthews. Four years ago, I gave him a thrill up his leg. This time around, I gave him a stroke," he said, and followed that with, "I learned that there are worse things that can happen to you on your anniversary than forgetting to buy a gift."
"This is my last campaign, so I am trying to drink it all in. Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg will only allow me to have sixteen ounces of it. That's OK — I'm making the most of it. Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in midtown. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in midtown."
“The next debate is on foreign policy,” Obama said. “Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden.”
Although this was a charity event with politics on a short leash, it was hard not to see this third juxtaposition of the two men in two weeks as another confirmation, if the recent polls were not enough, that both men are now seen as equally plausible to be in the White House come January, a situation that many would not have predicted at the beginning of September. Romney once again at least held serve.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.