DENVER -- Just seconds after the presidential debate ended here at the University of Denver Wednesday night, Mitt Romney's advisers and surrogates rushed to the press room to take reporters' questions and tout their man's performance. They were eager, happy, and ready to talk because they believed their man scored a clear win in his first face-off with President Obama.
After a few minutes of interviews, and the arrival of still more Romney surrogates, some reporters looked around and asked: Are there any Democrats here? Where are the Obama advisers and surrogates eager to speak for the president?
It took a while for them to show up. And when they arrived, they were on the defensive from the get-go about the president's performance.
No, he wasn't tired, they said. No, he wasn't rusty. No, he wasn't too laid back. The president, they explained, "did exactly what he had to do," which was "to lay out a very clear plan for the future," said campaign manager Jim Messina.
And Romney? "There is some sense that Mitt Romney was aggressive, but I think it was a theatrical aggression," said senior adviser David Plouffe. "There was breathtaking dishonesty by Governor Romney tonight on his tax plan. Breathtaking." Added Messina: "Governor Romney stayed on defense on Medicare, on tax cuts, on the things that are going to be really problematic for him in the battleground states."
It's probably safe to say that those few surrogates who ventured into the spin room with blue Obama signs were the only, or nearly the only, people in Magness Arena claiming the president won. The consensus, among press observers at least, was that Romney was sharper, more prepared, and more aggressive than Barack Obama. The president seemed all those things his aides said he was not: tired, rusty, and inexplicably laid back.
A president doesn't have to answer tough questions or face persistent challenges very often if he doesn't want to. He can cut off arguments by saying, "We're doing it my way" -- Obama has done a lot of that. He can deflect press inquiries -- if he faces them at all -- by saying, "Next question." Obama, on Wednesday night, looked like a president who hasn't had to face many sharp challenges lately. He seemed out of shape.
Romney, on the other hand, came across as a man who had made the most of session after session of debate prep. On jobs, on taxes, on energy, on regulation, on education, on pretty much everything, he got the better of Obama. There was simply no moment in the debate during which the president clearly bested his Republican rival.
That was even true with health care. For months, some Republicans have dreaded the moment they knew would inevitably come in the debates in which Obama, facing criticism of Obamacare, would throw Romneycare back in Romney's face. Well, that moment came Wednesday night when Romney detailed Obamacare's shortcomings. And Obama's comeback was a dud. A complete dud.
Obama even failed to use the most obvious attack of all on Romney. For weeks now, the Obama campaign has made a big deal of Romney's "47 percent" remarks; that brief video has become Exhibit A for the campaign's depiction of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy. But in 90 minutes of free-form debating, Obama never once uttered the phrase "47 percent." He just didn't bring it up.
Afterward, Obama aides claimed it was no big deal. "It just didn't come up in the course of the conversation," said Messina. "We continue to believe that this is a very clear difference and Governor Romney is trying to run away from the comment. It just didn't come up."
"There are a lot of things that come up in a debate, and some that don't," said Plouffe. "Obviously those remarks have been a big part of the campaign. We're advertising on them. Our focus was an American electorate focused on how do we move forward."
For their part, Team Romney couldn't believe Obama left "47 percent" untouched. "I never would have guessed that you could go 90 minutes and not hear about the '47 percent' comment," said Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a frequent Romney defender. "I was surprised it wasn't a question, and I was even more surprised the president didn't bring it up."
For all the pre-debate talk about zingers, there weren't really any Wednesday night. The closest came when Romney said that, "Under the president's policies, middle-class Americans have been buried." It was a clear reference to Vice President Joe Biden's latest gaffe, but Romney never mentioned Biden. He just deftly slipped in the word "buried" and moved on. Obama clearly got it, but he moved on, too.
Despite their difficulties in defending the president's performance, Team Obama did seem confident that the debate will help the president. From their post-debate remarks, they appear to be thinking much more about the debate's effect on relatively small numbers of voters in a few key swing states more than its effect on the punditocracy or even voters nationwide.
"This is a race to 270 electoral votes," said Messina. "Tonight Governor Romney's doubling down on Medicare, doubling down on the huge ballooning of the deficit and taxes, is a problem for him in Florida, is a problem for him in Ohio, in Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania -- all the places we're going to have to go to get to 270 electoral votes."
Plouffe added his view that the Romney aggressiveness might not play well in those crucial areas. "I think for the average person sitting in their home in Ft. Myers Florida, or Durango, Colorado, or in Reno, Nevada -- my sense is that [they saw] a little testiness there." You can bet Team Obama was keeping a close eye on how the debate played in those very places.
There was much discussion before the debate about the practice partners each candidate chose to play his rival in debate prep sessions. For Romney's practice, the part of Barack Obama was played by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, and for Obama's practice, the part of Mitt Romney was played by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. When the show finally started, Portman cleaned Kerry's clock.
"I don't think the president was at his best," Portman said after the debate. "I thought he seemed uncomfortable. He was uncomfortable with being asked questions, not just by Governor Romney but also by the moderator, Jim Lehrer."
Portman had his own view of how the debate might play in Ohio. "Undecided voters in Ohio have seen a barrage of negative ads mis-characterizing Mitt Romney as a person, and his record," Portman explained. "So the polls are reflecting that. I think this debate changes the dynamic of the race."
Maybe. But there are two more presidential debates, and one vice presidential debate, that might change the dynamic again. Still, there's one dynamic that seems set in this race. Voters are unhappy with President Obama's record on the economy. So far, many of them have not seen Romney as a plausible alternative. If, after watching the debates, they do come to see Romney as that plausible alternative, Obama could be in big trouble, even if he improves his performance in future debates.
"I just think he has a terrible record to defend," top Romney adviser Stuart Stevens said of the president "They've hidden behind almost a billion dollars in campaign expenditures. Now, you can't hide behind ads, you can't hide behind surrogates, you can't have Bill Clinton step in for you on that stage."
"I don't think he had a particularly bad debate," Stevens concluded. "He's had a bad four years."