DENVER -- Mitt Romney took the debate stage here with top Republicans verging on panic over his listless and accident-prone campaign, publicly second-guessing their party's nominee and privately hedging their bets as they contemplated the long odds he was facing.
He left the stage as a man who had won a debate, a reprieve from early obituaries, and at least the possibility of a fresh look from the relatively narrow slice of voters still open to persuasion in a highly polarized electorate.
As with any performance, a debate score is in the eye of the beholder. At least on stylistic grounds, however, a clear consensus of early reviews -- most notably from liberal commentators dismayed by Barack Obama's lackluster outing -- judged Romney as having the superior evening, with a spirited personal demeanor, crisply delivered lines, and a bullet-pointed policy message that kept its focus on jobs while parrying many of the president's attacks.
At a minimum, Romney's performance has chased away the aroma of terminal illness that was starting to emanate from his campaign and the increasingly restive factions in and around his operation. He has given conservatives a performance to rally behind, likely stalled any effort by GOP moneymen to start directing money away from the presidential race in favor of congressional races, and, not least, bolstered his own self-confidence after weeks of painful stubbed toes and jeering commentary.
Whether he gets more than this minimum payoff is far from certain, given the deficit he was facing in both national polls and, more troublingly, several must-win swing states. Some supporters hoped he would immediately turn the debate into television commercials. Nearly all said he must channel the elements that made his Denver performance impressive -- in particular, sharpening the contrast with Obama through a forward-looking policy message -- in the next two presidential debates and in his daily events.
"It gives Mitt Romney the opportunity now to have more key people, undecided voters, listen to what he's staying," said Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has been playing Obama in debate preparations.
"We saw such a strong and effective leader tonight that I'd like to see some of this in the advertising plan," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
"This was a make-or-break moment for the Romney campaign and he delivered," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), adding, with a chuckle: "A lot of my colleagues who are in tough races were really encouraged by what they saw tonight. They saw somebody ready to run this thing to the finish line."
David Axelrod, Obama's top strategist, said he expected Romney to enjoy a bump in the polls of 1 to 3 points.
The recurring phrase from Republicans about their often-ill-at-ease nominee: Where has this guy been? One joke making the rounds was that the Mormon Romney had his first cup of coffee.
"I don't think anybody out there who watched this objectively couldn't come away from it saying this is a very different candidate than what we've been reading and hearing about," Thune said.
Wednesday's showing, these Republicans and others said, was the first time many voters saw a version of Romney as something other than the gaffe-prone plutocrat that Obama has so effectively caricatured in TV ads.
Many of his lines put the emphasis on his own solutions as much as criticism of Obama -- a clear contrast from his nomination acceptance speech in Tampa that notably failed to help his trajectory.
Romney was helped by a surprisingly drowsy and dull-edged performance by Obama. The president made no major blunders, and he was consistent in his argument that Romney's fiscal proposals are unrealistic and irresponsible, forcing a choice between huge deficits or big tax increases on the middle class. But he seemed sedate in demeanor, his words full of pauses and even at times nervous stammers, and he sometimes gave off an air of weariness or impatience toward the proceeding.
Obama can take some comfort in history. George W. Bush was widely judged to have clearly lost the first debate against John Kerry in 2004, a fact that didn't change the arc of the race. And, as Obama allies noted Wednesday, most voters -- unlike many reporters and commentators -- do not judge debates principally as theater criticism but more on which policy arguments make sense to them.
Even as they insisted that they only wanted Obama to have a genuine conversation with voters watching at home, the president's high command will undoubtedly nudge him to show more passion in the next debate.
The Chicago brain trust also signaled that it would continue to pound Romney over his comments about Americans who don't pay income taxes -- a campaign controversy that Obama never brought up at the Denver face-off.
"We are making the case in a lot of different ways," said Obama senior adviser David Plouffe about the 47 percent. "You know the president's out there giving speeches tomorrow."
But the debate suggested that the Obama team's days of clubbing Romney without any effective pushback -- or simply waiting for him to club himself with clumsy campaign-trail remarks -- are coming to an end with just under five weeks before Nov. 6.
"He uses this [debate] to show the American public that he's got a plan, that he can articulate the specifics of the plan and that he has the confidence in himself and can build confidence with the American people to lead the country," explained Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), an up-and-coming freshman.
The debate gave Republicans their biggest lift since the selection of Paul Ryan as the vice-presidential pick in August. And it gave Republicans, especially elected officials nervously eyeing their own campaigns, a measure of reassurance that their nominee can at least stay in the race -- no matter the ongoing reality that Romney, absent a dramatic swing in polls, has a very narrow path to 270 electoral college votes.
Asked if Senate Republicans would feel better in the morning, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio shot back: "We're feeling better tonight."
Another senior Capitol Hill Republican, watching a hard-charging Romney unseen since the GOP primary, put it more bluntly: "He brought game I didn't think he had."
Republicans were especially delighted to hear Romney repeatedly telling the stories of average Americans he had met, something he has not done effectively yet on the stump and which made the often-remote candidate seem more connected to the lives of voters.
Obama's campaign, meanwhile, sought to set expectations about what Romney's strong showing may do for the Republican.
"I think there is a presumption that goes to the challenger, I think someone wrote ... 1 to 3 percent bump maybe he'll get that," said Axelrod , conceding that Romney is "very good on the attack, that's his forte."
Axelrod, however, argued that Romney's stances on taxes, spending, Medicare and Wall Street regulation would ultimately doom his candidacy.
"The long-term result of this is going be that the concerns people had about his positions are going to continue to be the concerns they have about his positions," he said.
What puzzled some Democrats and altogether shocked Republicans was that Obama never raised Romney's secretly recorded criticism of the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay taxes. The line has become a core part of Obama's assault on Romney both on the stump and in TV ads.
"I don't know," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), when asked why the president never brought up a line of attack the campaign finds damning. "I guess because he's a gentleman."
A prominent Democrat involved in a major outside effort this election was confounded.
"I thought he'd hammer 47 percent the entire time," said the Democrat. "But he's up by a decent margin so he took a 'do no harm' approach to his campaign."
If Obama played it safe, Romney debated like his candidacy depended on it. Which actually isn't much of an overstatement. Without a strong performance in Denver, Romney's campaign would've been engulfed with complaints from his fellow Republicans. Even before the debate started, some of the would-be surrogates in the press filing center were musing about their nominee's poor campaign. The word "anchor" was used -- and not in the good way.
Following the forum, though, Republicans were openly predicting a turnaround.
"You'll see the needle move a few points," predicted American Conservative Union head Al Cardenas. "I'm not saying it's decisive in the campaign, but it's a tremendous progress for Mitt. And my sense is the race is practically tied now. Probably by next week when you wake up you'll see Mitt probably forging ahead in a few of these swing states that are pretty close now."
The party line from Obama's campaign was that Romney may have helped himself on style points but found no "game-changer." But it seems unlikely that the president will show up for the second debate with a similar lack of energy. And the president's advantages in some battleground states won't likely give way so easily as some Republicans may hope. But the first debate marked the long-sought restart the GOP has been searching for since Clint Eastwood bantered with the chair in Tampa. A restart, however, doesn't represent a comeback just yet.
"We won today, but we have to win tomorrow," cautioned Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "And we have to win Friday. And then we have to win next week."
James Hohmann and Juana Summers contributed to this report.
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