First reactions are almost always off, but we react, then we write. So here goes:

Romney ceded the debate to McCain at the beginning when he acknowledged that McCain’s record was that of a mainstream conservative, albeit with some caveats. Astonishing – the only way Romney will win on Feb 5 is if a groundswell of grassroots conservative opposition to McCain. Romney pointed out some apostasies, but he did not make a sustained argument that McCain was not sufficiently conservative.

There’s no question that Romney got in his talking points, but early on he did not extend them with energy or zest; he seemed resigned and somber; he matched McCain’s tone, rather than leading McCain into the wilderness of anger or confrontation. Romney never pressed McCain on McCain’s dodges, like on the Bush tax cuts. There was no follow through…nothing to cue the voters that they had just seen something important.

McCain seems to have spent virtually all his debate prep time on the economy. For the first time in a debate – and during the last, most important debate – he matched Romney on breadth of knowledge and exceeded him at projecting sympathy. He knew the buzz words , he knew the status of legislation, he talked ably about interplay between the foreign and domestic economies.

Yes, Romney got in a few zingers – the point about McCain and dirty tricks being one of them. But McCain’s rebuttal was effective, and in any event, McCain knows this subject like the back of his hand, and he’s able to argue circles around Romney, who tried to argue from a point of personal procedures. Also: the issue is so complex that the “right” answer wasn’t evident – certainly not to the average viewer.

Off to the spin room....

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