Presidential debate: Round One goes to Romney

The US election is no longer a re-election procession for Barack Obama, but a genuine contest once more.

Mitt Romney will leave Denver a happy man. He had to produce a good performance the first presidential debate and he did just that.

This will go down as a win for the Republican nominee.

He spent a lot of time getting ready for an encounter which his team had built up in importance, some even describing as the point where the campaign would be reset.

From the very beginning of the 90 minute debate, he looked comfortable and prepared, someone totally in charge of his brief. President Barack Obama on the other hand looked exhausted and exasperated in equal measure. Thrown onto the defensive for much of the encounter, he missed some open goals. At one point Mitt Romney queried whether the President’s assertion companies get a tax break for shipping jobs overseas, saying that after 25 years in business: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I need to get a better accountant’.

This was the perfect opportunity to highlight once more that his opponent is a multi-millionaire who last year paid a tax rate lower than most average Americans, so probably has a pretty good accountant. There was no mention of the ’47 per cent’ video which has damaged the Romney campaign so badly, and only a passing reference to the auto industry bail out. This was an insipid, uninspired and uninspiring performance from a sitting President who four years ago energised a country and a generation with his message of hope and change.

That allowed Mitt Romney to appear calm and in control, even Presidential.

Much of the debate was buried in the minutiae of financial reform (the Dodds-Franks Act) and budget reform (the Simpson-Bowles Committee) which perhaps would have bored the majority of the estimated 50 million TV viewers at home. And so the small victories Barack Obama could claim will perhaps go unnoticed. He effectively tied Mitt Romney to the policies of previous Republican administrations, which he argued had caused the financial crisis. And in perhaps his best line of the night, he pointed out many of the proposals put forward by his opponent lacked detail: ‘Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret because they are too good?’ It is an argument which has dogged Romney’s run to the White House and won’t disappear in the four weeks of the contest remaining.

One close Romney adviser once came under attack for suggesting that the candidate was like an etch-a-sketch, the children’s game where a picture can be erased by shaking the drawing board, and a new one quickly put in its place. To a degree, Mitt Romney was exactly that in the debate. Gone was the man pushed to the right during the primary process, replaced by a centrist who proposed strong regulation on the financial markets and was deeply concerned about the worries of the middle class.

This fact checkers will rake over many of the statements in the next few hours and days but overall most people will consider Romney the victor here in Denver.

Speaking to those in the Romney camp afterwards, it was clear they believed their man was energised and engaged and delivered a performance which will reset the election as it hoped.

What that will do is stop the requiems for his campaign which have been played so loudly over the past few days, even from inside his own party. The US media won’t be talking about Mitt Romney’s gaffes, instead it will be about his comeback. The election is no longer a re-election procession for Barack Obama but a genuine contest once more.

But even then, it may not be enough. Debates can move polls, but experience dictates they rarely settle elections.

This was one good performance, but there are still two more debates to go.

Follow Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher on Twitter: @AlanFisher

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