The script for Mitt Romney called for game-changing moments and it will take days to know if the game indeed has changed and whether he closed the gap in polls with President Barack Obama.
But it was clear throughout the debate in Denver tonight that Romney understood the stakes and that may have been why he delivered a performance that surely exceeded expectations and went beyond what he did on stage at the Republican National Convention or during the many GOP primary debates.
Obama, on the other hand, appeared distracted at times and inexplicably failed to bring up some of his campaign's principal attacks, particularly with regard to Romney's "47-percent remark" in Florida and his leadership with Bain Capital.
It seemed at times like Obama, a serious sports fan, was pondering the confusing baseball playoff picture on the final night of the regular season rather than training his energy on the man who wants his job.
The president was on the defense at key points and at times got bogged down in minutiae trying to explain his Affordable Care Act.
Romney's references to Medicare and his own tax plan, which is decidedly beneficial to the wealthy, appeared to contain factual problems. But many viewers are more likely to remember the energy he displayed rather than the substance of his words.
The "trickle-down government" line Romney uttered on two occasions surely was pre-scripted but proved an effective means to describe a key contrast with the president over the role of Washington.
The debate featured no memorable gaffes or so-called knock-out punches. But Romney scored the best line of the night when he accused the president of "spending energy and passion" to pass health-care legislation during his first two years in office rather than devoting significant energy to creating jobs.
Passion was not what the president displayed in Denver, where he seemed resolved to sit on a lead in polls that has bred optimism among Democrats, particularly in swing states.
The president may have been most effective when he spoke of "voucherizing" Medicare and the potential risks to a program sacred to many Americans. But he failed to adequately rebuff the GOP argument about his $700 billion-plus cuts in Medicare which, in reality, is slowing unsustainable growth over a decade's time.
Obama appeared almost insulted at Romney's challenges, looking irritated and slightly bemused rather than responding aggressively on matters such precisely how the the former Massachusetts governor would replace the health-care legislation that he promises to repeal.
Instead, Obama seemed content with wry observations rather than pointed responses. He had little to say about the importance of renewables when Romney implied folly in spending $90 billion for green energy. And in a discussion about ending gridlock in Washington, the president passed up an opportunity to forcefully connect Romney with the GOP intransigence in Congress.
Itwas as if Obama had forgotten that Romney was at his worst in the GOP primary debates when challenged, such as the evening last December when he proposed betting $10,000 when Texas Gov. Rick Perry got under his skin.
By tomorrow, when overnight polls arrive and his allies are calling him, the president surely will conclude that an above-the-fray approach does not work. He can take solace in knowing that two more debates lay ahead, one in a townhall setting that might better reflect his skill at communicating.
For Romney, who went toe-to-toe with the president and bested him at times, tomorrow may well bring renewed confidence that he can win and a new day for his presidential quest.
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