DENVER -- Among many topics not mentioned during Wednesday night's first presidential debate was Mitt Romney's controversial comment about 47 percent of Americans viewing themselves as "entitled" to government benefits.
That comment, videotaped at a private Romney fundraiser for wealthy donors, has been at the epicenter of President Barack Obama's attacks on his GOP opponent over the past few weeks, with his campaign even putting out an ad on the topic. Its absence in the debate, therefore, was conspicuous and a bit head-scratching.
"Seriously, Dems, can you believe that Obama never used the 47% video? Incredible!" tweeted political analyst Larry Sabato.
"Why not push the 47 percent comment that is the subject of saturation ads? Keep pres above it? Or deny Gov Romney chance to explain it?" wondered Carl Hulse of The New York Times.
Some of the spin coming from the Obama campaign and its surrogates after the debate seemed contradictory or unbelievable. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley argued that Obama didn't mention the 47 percent comment because "he's a gentleman."
"I think the president wanted to come in tonight and not deliver attack lines," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "He wanted to lay out what his plans were -- what his economic plans were, how he was going to protect health care and we did exactly that."
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, meanwhile, said, "It just didn't come up in the course of the conversation. We continue to believe it is a very clear difference. Gov. Romney is trying to run away from that comment. It just didn't come up tonight."
These explanations don't work together. Either Obama was planning to discuss it and it didn't come up, or he wasn't planning on offering "zingers" at all. A top Obama official, when asked for a concise explanation, conceded that avoiding it was part of a strategic decision before the debate.
"We weren't going to do a bunch of political stuff tonight," the aide said, adding that the debate "was about looking in the camera and laying out the choice and the plans."
At the very least, Obama campaign senior adviser Robert Gibbs said on Tuesday that he expected moderator Jim Lehrer to bring up the topic.
"I have no doubt that the moderator is going to ask Romney maybe to spend a little bit more time telling us more elegantly, in his words, what he meant by what he said," Gibbs said, adding that he expected Obama to say "47 percent" 47 times.
Romney senior campaign adviser Kevin Madden also said he believed "a lot" of the reason it didn't come up was because Lehrer never raised it.
One Republican official had another explanation for why Obama didn't bring it up: "cockiness."
"I think it was a loser for the president to bring something like that up, because the president's created a monstrosity in this government," added Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus.
Still, it seemed like the Romney campaign was perhaps surprised the famous remarks were never mentioned. When asked whether Romney had prepared a response, Madden replied, "You prepare for everything, right? Sort of like the Boy Scouts."
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