By Justin Sink and Amie Parnes - 10/04/12 03:37 AM EDT
Mitt Romney dominated the critical first presidential debate Wednesday night, landing punch after punch on a noticeably subdued President Obama.
The GOP nominee came into the evening needing to shake up the narrative of the race, and he appeared to succeed.
He spent the evening on the offensive and came off well-prepared for his encounter with Obama, who seemed hesitant and forced.
And while Romney hit his marks, Obama missed opportunities when he failed to mention two of his campaign’s most effective attacks against Romney — the GOP nominee's tenure at the private equity firm Bain Capital and the comments about the "47 percent" captured on video at a private fundraiser.
The president, wearing a clenched smile for much of the night, looked to depict Romney as deceiving people with his economic plans, arguing the GOP tax plan would shift the burden to the middle class.
"How we pay for that, reduce the deficit, and make the investments that we need to make, without dumping those costs onto middle-class Americans, I think is one of the central questions of this campaign," Obama said.
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But despite polls regularly showing that voters see the president as more empathetic and concerned with the problems facing American families, it was Romney who spoke empathetically of the effect of the still-lagging economy on individuals struggling to find work.
There was also a notable contrast in style: Obama spent much of the debate looking directly into the camera, a strategy planned by his campaign to speak directly to the American people, while Romney addressed the president head-on.
Conservatives were exuberant following the debate, saying Romney had successfully captured the moment, while several Democrats and even some of the president’s staunchest supporters were disappointed in Obama's performance.
“He was rolled,” one former administration official said.
Obama’s top strategist, David Axelrod, said, “There’s no doubt he has a hungry challenger.”
“Gov. Romney's always been good on the attack," Axelrod told NBC News, conceding he would award Romney "style points."
Liberal MSNBC anchor Ed Schultz, along with a panel of other left-leaning pundits appearing on the network, said the president was disappointing.
And former adviser to President Clinton James Carville, speaking on CNN, said that he had "one overwhelming impression ... It looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there. ... It gave you the impression that this whole thing was a lot of trouble." He added that "Romney had a good night."
A CBS News snap poll of undecided voters conducted after the debate found that those on the fence generally agreed with the pundits. Of those surveyed, 46 percent gave the win to Romney, 22 percent to the president, and 32 percent called the contest a draw.
Throughout the evening, Obama spoke frequently in the abstract, while Romney scored points illustrating his disappointment with the president's with stories of specific individuals.
The hope from the Romney team was that the economic sparring would improve their candidate's polling on an issue that had been a core strength — and that displaying empathy could endear him to more voters.
Obama, meanwhile, looked to channel Clinton's successful convention-night "arithmetic" argument to question Romney's assumptions.
"If you are lowering the rates the way you describe, governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid raising the deficit or burdening the middle class," Obama said. "It's math, arithmetic."
Obama argued even "when you add up all the loopholes and deductions that upper income individuals are currently taking advantage of, you don't come close to paying for $5 trillion in tax cuts and $2 trillion in additional military spending" that Romney had proposed.
The Republican nominee blasted back, saying that "virtually everything" the president described as part of his tax plan was inaccurate and pledging he would not shift tax burdens from the wealthy to the middle class.
Romney, meanwhile, found success challenging Obama on not having accomplished his economic goals during his first term. During a testy exchange on the deficit, Romney interrupted Obama as the president was detailing his economic plan to reduce the deficit through spending cuts and raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
"You have been president for four years," Romney said. "You said would you cut the deficit in half."
The candidates both refused to cede ground on the issue, crystallizing the differences between the parties.
“If we are serious, we have to take a balanced, responsible approach,” Obama said.
“When the economy is growing slow like this, you shouldn’t raise taxes on anyone,” Romney said.
But despite a few testy exchanges, the debate was frequently characterized by in-depth discussions of policy intricacies. Both candidates seemed willing to deliver on their pre-debate promise to provide policy specifics, but the conversation at times became bogged down with minor squabbles rather than grand visions.
The first 45 minutes centered on the economy and, as the discussion transitioned to Medicare, Obama argued that the Republican plan would implement a voucher system, after which he said "the traditional Medicare system will collapse and then you have folks like my grandmother at the mercy of the private health insurance.”
Romney again pounced on Obama's comments, saying, "I can't understand how you can cut Medicare $716 billion for current recipients for Medicare."
Obama's subdued performance could throw back into question a race that for months has shown him with a consistent though small lead.
A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released the night before the debate showed the president with a 3-point lead among likely voters, with Obama holding leads within the polls' margins of error in Florida and Virginia. In the crucial state of Ohio, Obama led Romney 50 percent to 43 percent.
On Thursday, the candidates head back out on the stump: the president will hold a campaign rally in Denver and then fly to Wisconsin, where an afternoon rally is scheduled in Madison. Vice President Biden will hold an event in Iowa, while Romney and running mate Paul Ryan will be campaigning in Virginia.
The debate also had a few lighter moments. At the start, Obama began by giving a nod to his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, and their 20th wedding anniversary, which happened to fall on Wednesday.
"Twenty years ago, I became the luckiest man on earth because Michelle Obama agreed to marry me," he said, calling his wife "sweetie."
"A year from now, we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people," he said.
— This story was originally posted at 9:28 p.m. and last updated at 11:37 p.m.