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Associated Press
Republican Mitt Romney makes a point during the first presidential debate.

Strong debate night helps Romney

– 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 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. “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.”

‘A hard look’

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 versus 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.

Minus a defense

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 onstage 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.”

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 Gov. 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.

Coming up

The next debate of the campaign will be Thursday in Danville, Ky., between Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Vice President Biden.

The next debate between Obama and Romney will be Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and the third and final presidential debate will be Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Axelrod was asked whether Obama was satisfied with his showing Wednesday night.

“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.”