WASHINGTON — The reviews are in: Mitt Romney won the first debate and the presidential race has entered a new phase, supporters of the Republican presidential candidate — and even some Democrats — say.
Dogged by criticism from his party and by flagging poll numbers in key swing states, Romney pulled off a clear victory in the first debate Wednesday night, according to several viewer polls, besting President Barack Obama by a wide margin.
According to a CNN/ORC International poll, 67 percent of viewers thought Romney won the debate, with 25 percent judging Obama the winner.
Obama and Romney met in Denver over 90 minutes, a matchup that left Republicans crowing and Democrats in despair over what some viewed as a lackluster performance by the president, who spent the debate looking down at his notes and letting many of Romney's challenges go unanswered.
At the Weekly Standard, conservative standard bearer William Kristol, who has been critical of Romney, summed up the change of tune among Republicans, who had hoped for a Romney breakthrough after several challenging weeks.
"Mitt Romney stood and delivered the best debate performance by a Republican presidential candidate in more than two decades," Kristol wrote. "Romney spoke crisply about the next four years as well as the last four years, was detailed in clarifying the choice of paths ahead, and seemed more comfortable, more energetic — and even more presidential _than the incumbent. Romney comes out of the debate with momentum. Can his campaign turn a very good debate into a true inflection point in the presidential race?"
For their part, progressives faulted Obama (and moderator Jim Lehrer) for a weak, uninspired performance that left Romney with an opening to gain the upper hand.
"Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn't there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment," wrote Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast. "The person with authority on that stage was Romney — offered it by one of the lamest moderators ever, and seized with relish. This was Romney the salesman. And my gut tells me he sold a few voters on a change tonight. It's beyond depressing. But it's true."
Democratic strategist James Carville also gave Romney the upper hand. "I had one ho-hum impression — I did everything I could not to reach it, but I had to reach it — and it looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there," Carville said Wednesday night on CNN. Romney "seemed like he was happy to be there debating. President Obama gave you the impression that this whole thing was kind of a lot of trouble."
Thursday morning Carville sent out a message to supporters titled "splash of water in the face," that sought to turn the debate into a fundraising opportunity for Democrats.
The Obama campaign gave Romney points for style and presentation but accused him of playing a "shell game" with the facts and lacking specifics in terms of his tax plan — much of the first 15 minutes of the debate was spent on whether Romney's tax cuts would cost $5 trillion.
"I said that I expected Mitt Romney to come in and turn in a very strong performance. That's his history. He's been rehearsing for this since last June, and he delivered his lines well," Obama adviser David Axelrod said Thursday on MSNBC. "The problem isn't with his performance. The problem is with his underlying theories and some fundamental dishonesty that we saw last night."
Axelrod said that he understood the complaints of some progressives who were disappointed that Obama let many of Romney's statements go unchallenged and failed to highlight the contradictions between what the Republican has been saying on the trail vs. what he said during the debate.
"I understand that our strong supporters feel very, very, strongly that . . . we should have plowed in on the 47 percent, on his tax returns, on Bain and so on," Axelrod said. "I think most people tuning in were more interested in their lives, in their future, and that's what the president was discussing and doing it in an honest way."
Axelrod said that Obama made the decision to answer the questions that were asked, rather than bring up outside topics like women's issues, immigration, the auto industry bailouts and Romney's record in the private sector.
"We are going to take a hard look at this and we're going to make some judgments as to where to draw the line in these debates and how to use our time," Axelrod said on a Thursday morning conference call with reporters, adding that it is unlikely that Obama would add a huge amount of prep time.
Stumping in Denver, Obama picked up on some of the themes that supporters said he missed Wednesday night, suggesting there was a "real Romney" who was different than the candidate who showed up for the debate.
"The Mitt Romney we all know invested in companies that were called 'pioneers' of outsourcing jobs to other countries," Obama said at an event in Denver. "But the guy on stage last night, he said he's never heard of tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas."
The Romney campaign was quick to respond.
"The Obama campaign's conference call today was just like the president's performance last night," Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in a statement. "The campaign, like the President, offered no defense of the President's first term record or vision for a second term, and instead, offered nothing but false attacks, petulant statements, and lies about Governor Romney's record."
According to an average of several viewer polls, incumbent presidents have often lost the first debate. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan lost to Democratic challenger Walter Mondale 54 percent to 35 percent, and in 2004, President George W. Bush lost all three debates to Democratic nominee John Kerry, according to viewers. And in 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot was judged by viewers to be the winner of two of the three presidential debates, with President Bill Clinton winning one debate, according to viewer polls taken at the time and compiled by CNN.
The Romney campaign had signaled before Wednesday night's event that the former Massachusetts governor was preparing "zingers" for the evening, yet the night provided few such exchanges. Perhaps the most memorable line was Romney's shoutout to Big Bird, as he promised to cut funding to PBS as a way to reduce government spending.
Speaking to conservative activists in Colorado on Thursday, Romney vowed to win the state and the White House.
"Last night I thought was a great opportunity for the American people to see two very different visions for the country," Romney said. "And I think it was helpful to be able to describe those visions. I saw the president's vision as trickle-down government and I don't think that's what America believes in."
Romney advisers, who have spent the last weeks publicly pledging a reset and sharper focus, said they sensed that the debate had changed the direction of the campaign.
"I think it did make a difference, I do think there is a sense of a dynamic shift in the campaign, and I know there's a lot of talk about the style. And Governor Romney was clearly very much in command of the facts last night and had solutions," Ed Gillespie, a Romney adviser, said Thursday on MSNBC. "I think the big thing was that he laid out a very clear choice and a big choice, and that's what this election is about. It was the substance of the debate that mattered most — the competing view of what is best for getting our country going again."
The next debate of the campaign is Oct. 11, in Danville, Ky., between Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Vice President Joe Biden. And Friday, unemployment numbers for September will be released, providing yet another opening for Romney to press his case against the president.
Asked whether Obama was satisfied with his showing Wednesday night, Axelrod said the president would take a look at how he did and adjust accordingly.
"The president's never satisfied with his performance. He is always challenging himself, and he will review it and if he wants to make some changes in the next debate, he'll do so," Axelrod said. "What he was satisfied with was that he went and told the American people the truth, and I think he's fairly well convinced that Governor Romney didn't meet that standard. So that's going to be an issue in these coming 30 days."