Bamboozled by a fiercely belligerent debate performance by Mitt Romney, the Barack Obama campaign was rushing to regroup yesterday to protect its momentum in a presidential contest that overnight seemed to have travelled from nearly foregone to suddenly competitive again.
There was consternation, if not despair, in Democrat ranks that a cool-verging-on-chilly Mr Obama eschewed assailing his opponent on issues ranging from his stewardship of Bain capital and his dismissive remarks caught on video tape about 47 per cent of Americans taking handouts, and seemed almost passive before a relentless bombardment of his presidential record.
"Under the President's policies middle-income Americans have been buried, they are just being crushed," Mr Romney averred, looking directly at the President, who, by contrast, spent a lot of the time looking down at notes. "What we're seeing right now is a trickle-down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than people pursuing their dreams. It's not working."
The 90-minute face-off on Wednesday night was a study not just in the opposing ideologies of the two candidates, whether on their visions of the place of government in society, their tax plans, healthcare reform, or tackling the deficit, but also in opposing debating styles. While Mr Romney walked out fired up and ready to go – to steal an Obama slogan – the President seemed de-caffeinated, giving winding answers long on detail and statistics but short on passion.
Early polling by CNN said that 67 per cent of viewers at home saw Mr Romney as the winner and certainly pundits and commentators, including many normally friendly to the Democrats, did not hesitate to agree. If the post-debate spin and commentary matter as much as the encounter itself the incumbent did horribly.
Both candidates returned instantly to the road. Mr Obama, determined to reclaim the narrative, addressed a rally under chilled grey skies in Denver, while Mr Romney, hoping to capitalise on his debate reviews, travelled to Virginia. However, President Obama faces another road-bump just this morning when the government will unveil the latest unemployment numbers that are unlikely to offer cheer.
Keenly awaited now is post-debate polling data, especially in battle- ground states. Obama aides denied the debate had done him harm, arguing Mr Romney had come off over-agitated while the President had sought intelligent discourse with voters, deliberately declining to play attack-dog. The American people are "not looking for an Attacker-in-Chief, they are looking for a Commander-in-Chief," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Some of the more heated exchanges between the men were also coming under closer scrutiny, notably Mr Romney's refusal on the stage to accept Mr Obama's assertion that his economic plan spelled $5 trillion in tax cuts, many of them for the rich, which would have to be paid for in part by increased taxes on the middle class.
"I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of the scale that you're talking about. If the tax plan he just described were a tax plan I were asked to support, I'd say absolutely not," Mr Romney said, while on his part making the claim, disputed by Democrats, that Mr Obama had stripped $716bn from Medicare, the health programme for retirees, to pay for his overhaul of the US health system.
David Axelrod, a top Obama strategist, acknowledged that Romney may have made a stronger than expected impression. "I give him credit for a strong performance," but then he added, "I give him an 'F' for being honest with the American people."
The New York Times went further: "Virtually every time Mr Romney spoke, he misrepresented the platform on which he and Paul Ryan are actually running," it said in an editorial. "The most prominent example, taking up the first half-hour of the debate, was on taxes. Mr Romney claimed, against considerable evidence, that he had no intention of cutting taxes on the rich or enacting a tax cut that would increase the deficit. That simply isn't true."
Mr Obama took up the theme at yesterday's Denver rally. "You owe the American people the truth," he said referring directly to his rival. "Here is the truth, Governor Romney cannot pay for his $5 trillion tax plan without blowing out the deficit or sticking it to the middle class, that's the truth."
Debate: Points scored
Romney underscored that he will attack the deficit by cutting funding to programmes he thinks unnecessary, including subsidies for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), home of Big Bird. "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it."
Obama claimed that Romney's plan would result in $5trn in tax cuts that would force him to raise taxes on the middle class. "I don't have a $5trn tax cut," Romney shot back. But the President repeated that that would be the impact of his plan, which also includes big funding rise for the military.
Facts and fibs
"You're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts," Romney said after being told he would cut education funding. Similarly, Obama was not impressed when Romney denied he had a $5trn tax-cut plan. After promoting the proposal for 18 months, Romney now "is saying, his big, bold idea is, 'never mind'," the President said.