Behind the television riser, Romney's much-maligned strategic guru, Stu Stevens, was horsing around with the press corps, who had been greeted at the event with caramel apples, hot chocolate, and pink fleece blankets (it is breast cancer awareness month). Stevens snapped an iphone photo of NPR's Ari Shapiro wearing the blanket like a cape, and called to CBS's John Dickerson, who wore a dignified tan coat, "You look good, but you would look better with a pink blanket!"
Asked to reflect on the campaign's sudden turnaround, Stevens said there was a "renewed intensity" since the debate. "There's a natural rhythm to campaigns," he said. "You know, it was June 2011 when Governor Romney announced, yet there's still a huge number of people who are just tuning into the race." It was, he implied, as if those first 16 months of campaigning were mere prologue to the serious business now under way. "There's something about getting away from all the ads and just seeing two men on that [debate] stage," he said. "It's unique."
Democrats are convinced Obama lost the debate, but Republicans are just as sure Romney won it. Their satisfaction comes from the conviction that the world finally got to see what they've known all along -- that Obama is an empty suit and Romney is not the caricature the media has drawn. "I watched him a lot before the debate, so I didn't need the debate to know he was good," 71-year old Barbara Strunk, a tax preparer in red earmuffs and tinted bifocals, said as two high-school marching bands and a Boy Scout troop warmed up the crowd. "But I think other people needed to see it."
Steve Coates, a 62-year-old public-school computer technician with a bristly mustache and a country drawl, said of Obama, "He done his usual same ol' same ol'. I know he was missing his teleprompter! He just keeps spouting the same crap. There's no substance to him."
John Adams, the local state representative, said he never believed Romney was losing -- "I didn't believe the polls" -- but a lot of people were starting to get discouraged up until a week ago. "The word on the street was, 'It's over,'" he said. "The debate made a big difference. It energized the party. For me personally, it was a turning point."
What does Romney have to do now, I asked, to turn the tide in Ohio and keep the momentum going? "Just keep doing what he's doing," Adams said. "There's two more debates. We just have to execute."