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Presidential debate: 5 Takeaways from Denver

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By Maggie Haberman
For POLITICO.com

DENVER — One presidential debate is now in the books; two are left to go.

The conventional wisdom about Denver will hold this morning. Mitt Romney was the victor over President Barack Obama in the first of three debates marking the last month of the 2012 campaign.

The debate was relatively sleepy, and there were no fireworks or big "moments" to speak of, but Romney scored on points against a barely-there incumbent.

It isn't clear the Denver debate will be the "game-changer" that some of Romney's supporters predicted in its immediate aftermath, but Obama adviser David Axelrod set the expectations in the spin room when he indicated he expects the Republican will get a bounce off his performance.

What Romney definitely did was earn himself a second look from the slim pool of undecided and persuadable voters still considering their options, and give himself a tighter messaging framework to use, if he is able to, before the next debate in New York two weeks from now.

Below, POLITICO's five takeaways:

1. The Newt-slayer is back.

The Romney on stage Wednesday night bore a much closer resemblance to the one who ground up Newt Gingrich in the Florida GOP primary debate when his campaign depended on it.

Romney was aggressive, knew his points, and pushed back whenever there was an opportunity. He more than passed the test of being able to stand on the same platform as the president of the United States.

Romney didn't make any sweeping new vision statements. But he was sharp and able to rattle off statistics with ease. He stayed focused on the president and, unlike Obama, seemed mindful of the camera being on him even when it wasn't his turn to speak. His response on Obama's health-care plan was about the way it was enacted, as opposed to a muddled explanation of his own health plan as governor of Massachusetts. And he did not let Obama score a point off him without firing back.

Romney wasn't perfect — a quip about Big Bird that landed like a lead feather, and he had a tendency to get a bit bogged down in the weeds of tax plans and statistics during the debate's key first half hour, possibly because he was a bit overprepared.

There were no knockout punches either, but a thousand cuts that made Obama bleed.

2. Obama has a lot of work do.

Post-debate, the president's campaign was spinning valiantly in the media filing center. But there was no mistake among Democratic operatives here and in other states that Obama blew it.

It was one of the weakest performances ever turned in by a man known for his oratorical skill in speeches, and well enough (if less consistently solidly) in debates. Obama looked like he just wasn't enjoying himself. He gave halting answers, and seemed exhausted and irritable at times. He nodded frequently when Romney talked, dismissively saying "okay" while the former governor was midway through a response at one point.

The president came alive a bit at the end, using his line about Romney as "extreme," but it was rather late, and by then impressions had formed.

Obama and his campaign team may actually feel otherwise, but for 90 minutes, Obama's body language and approach also signaled that he doesn't consider beating Romney a huge challenge. The president seemed to be playing things safe. If so, that's a problem because the race remains close and there is a month — and two debates — left.

One of the most surprising elements of Obama's performance was what he didn't say. The president never raised Romney's secretly-taped comments about 47 percent of Americans at a fundraiser, or said the words Bain Capital, or questioned the GOP nominee about his tax returns, despite ample time devoted to the candidates' tax plans. It was more than a little puzzling.

Obama didn't invoke any of the attack lines that Democrats have used for months to keep Romney off balance, a decision that had a number of Obama supporters apoplectic about the strategy.

Obama aides insisted such obvious omissions weren't by design. If that's true, it suggests a candidate who wasn't in good form. If they're not being candid, it may have been a way of avoiding making a personal attack on stage, something that is harder to pull off, and which could make Obama look petty. But it also let Romney shape the narrative of the debate.

It remains to be seen whether this will be Obama's version of George W. Bush's first debate in 2004, in which the incumbent fared poorly. It remains to be seen if Obama will be on his game in a more advantageous format for the next round — town hall-style face-off in New York on Oct. 16.

The real problem for Obama was that he signaled he wasn't fighting for the race, while Romney — for the first time in awhile — showed that he was doing just that. Voters don't like it when it seems like candidates are taking things for granted and Obama can't assume that Romney, who's a fighter, isn't a threat.

3. Romney also still has work to do.

Only one of Romney's challenges was the stature gap, and he certainly went a long way toward closing it on Wednesday night. But there was no way for Romney to accomplish all he needs to at this late stage of the race in 90 minutes, either.

The GOP nominee tried to accomplish one of his tasks — humanizing himself — by invoking the tribulations of voters who have approached him and his wife, Ann, on the campaign trail. He used a much more Clintonian approach than Obama did when the president relied again on a biography he's turned to repeatedly to describe his mother's family as working-class.

Romney even managed to make the most of the first five minutes of the debate, when Obama acknowledged his 20th wedding anniversary, and the Republican made a joke about the president picking the most romantic setting possible to celebrate it — with Romney.

But Romney has a ways to go on this front, and his best opportunity may be at the New York debate. He will interact with voters, and have the opportunity to show he's more Clinton than George H.W. Bush when he's in that type of setting.

Yet Romney will also have to get more specific on his tax plan, on which Obama pressed him repeatedly. Romney responded that Obama wasn't telling the truth, and the president is hardly being specific himself about his second-term vision. But this is where the power of incumbency helps.

Moderator Jim Lehrer spent 10 minutes before the debate detailing, carefully, the rules of the game to the crowd gathered in the debate hall, and then explaining to the candidates the format. The crowd, ordered to silence, was compliant. Lehrer, however, got lost onstage.

Early on, Romney ground Lehrer down repeatedly in exchanges that made the GOP nominee look a bit testy at times when he pushed Lehrer for a chance to respond to some of Obama's remarks. But the candidate got the better of the moderator.

Lehrer ultimately stopped trying to tame Romney, and only occasionally did so with Obama. The first question ended up as a protracted back-and-forth over tax policy, but went so long that Lehrer himself got a bit frustrated.

What's more, the questions Lehrer asked were so loosely framed that the candidates were able to do with them what they wanted. And among the significant questions that were not put to the candidates were ones about foreign policy, especially the situation in Libya (to be fair, that was not an official topic of the debate).

The Obama campaign faulted Lehrer at points following the debate. Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told CNN that Lehrer let a "testy" Romney go on, but didn't repeat the charge to a gaggle of reporters. Romney's camp dismissed such moderator complaints as whining, but the case could be made that Lehrer was lax with both men.

Lehrer has a sterling reputation as a debate moderator at the presidential level. But the flabbiness of the Denver face-off was striking.

5. There was some substance and a lot of centrism.

If there was any question that Romney is making an effort to move toward the center — at a fairly late stage in the race — that became clear at this debate.

He talked up his bipartisan approach as governor of Massachusetts, a touchstone he's reached for occasionally but not regularly in the general election.

He painted himself as a problem solver, and steered clear of some of the more troublesome aspects of policy that could paint him as too far to the right. On the issue of voucherizing Medicare, he framed his response with care, mindful of how the issue plays, and without talking about the need for entitlement reform. He made sure that voters knew that he wasn't in favor of changing Medicare for current seniors, and repeated his stump claim that Obama's health care plan would cut Medicare spending.

And despite the Democratic National Convention containing frequent references to abortion rights, and the success with which Democrats believe they have used it as a cudgel against Romney, the president never raised it.

There was an expected exchange about "Obamacare" and "Romneycare," but it yielded little by way of new information.

The questions Lehrer asked also allowed for a bit more of a substantive exchange than we've seen through a lot of the campaign — although he did not challenge either candidate on some of their more dubious claims.

Also absent? The much-anticipated "zingers" from either candidate. Beyond Romney's Big Bird line and his quip about Obama having his own house and a plane, but not his own facts, there were few memorable lines in this debate. It's a striking fact for a campaign that's been defined, on both sides, by an attempt to exploit gaffes.

Maggie Haberman is a reporter for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.

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