The president clearly won the night, but his challenger emerges from the debates having shown himself to be a plausible leader.
Mitt Romney wins. That's not to say he won Monday night's debate or the presidential campaign, but it's safe to say he won an important chapter: The debate season.
With an acceptable, though far from exceptional, performance in his third and final face-off with President Obama, the former Massachusetts governor became one of the few presidential candidates to make debates matter.
Bottom line: Obama won Monday night's debate on points, benefiting from the blessings of incumbency and hard-world experience. But the challenger held his own, and thus the state of the race is likely unchanged.
There are ample reasons for both Obama and Romney to feel optimistic about their chances November 6. But through his own steady performances and a spectacular first-debate failure by the incumbent, Romney has cleared an important hurdle: A near-decisive number of Americans believe that he is a viable alternative to Obama, an incumbent saddled with a weak economy and a pessimistic national mood.
In his second-straight strong performance, Obama repeatedly reminded viewers Monday night that he is the only candidate who has served as commander-in-chief. At least twice, he warned that Romney would be a "wrong and reckless" leader. And he caught Romney trying to shift positions on Iraq, defense spending, the auto bailout, and Russia's role in the world.
"You keep on trying to airbrush history here," Obama said.
Obama also called Romney out for inaccurately accusing him of apologizing for America. "Nothing Governor Romney just said is true," Obama said.
"Who's going to be credible for all parties involved?" the president asked, hoping the answer would be him for a second term.
Romney's strongest moment came when he argued that the United States needs a stronger economy to be strong abroad. "Nowhere in the world is America's influence today greater than it was four years ago," Romney said.
From the start of the debate, Romney sought to blunt Obama's efforts to cast Romney's foreign policies as a hawkish repeat of President George W. Bush, even when that meant blurring the lines between his views and those of Obama. For instance, Romney congratulated Obama for overseeing the assassination of Osama bin Laden but said there are limits to U.S. aggression.
"We can't kill ourselves out of this mess," Romney said. He wouldn't dare say that during a GOP primary debate.
While Obama may have won the night, Romney can claim the three-debate season. On the day of their first face-off, October 3, Obama had a 49 percent to 46 percent edge over Romney, according to the RealClearPolitics poll of polls. Five days later, Obama's lead had evaporated. Two weeks after the debate, Romney led by four in the poll of polls.
A new poll by NBC/Wall Street Journal suggests that both candidates have momentum, though of a different kind. Romney has narrowed Obama's lead among women, overtaken Obama on economic issues, and improved his favorability ratings.
While 47 percent of likely voters say they are either "optimistic and confident" or "satisfied and hopeful" about a Romney presidency, 62 percent say that if Obama is reelected he needs to make major changes. Only 4 percent are satisfied with the status quo, a five-alarm warning bell for Obama.
And yet the incumbent has wind at his back. A growing number of people believe the country is on the right track, according to several polls. The NBC/WSJ survey suggests that 45 percent think the economy will improve in the next 12 months, 18 points higher than in July. Only 9 percent think the economy will get worse.
Still, these are scary times for Obama and his fellow Democrats. "For the first time in this campaign, I'd rather be in Romney's shoes than ours," said a top Obama adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution for belying the campaign spin.
History and common sense suggests that Obama is going to have a tougher time closing the sale than Romney. Close elections tend to break toward the challenger because undecided voters -- having held out so long against the incumbent -- are by nature looking for change.
Unfathomably, Obama has resisted throughout the debate season detailing a second-term agenda. While he made a strong case that his first term included substantial and historic achievements, Obama has failed to explain to voters what he has learned from his mistakes and how he would build on his successes.
He has focused almost singularly in the debates -- as well as in his advertising -- on convincing Americans that Romney was not qualified to be president. To a large degree, that hasn't worked.
The core of his anti-Romney argument has an inherent conflict: His rival is both a harsh conservative (too ideological) and a flip-flopper (not ideological enough).
Romney's campaign is no better. Indeed, in many ways it's been worse. His agenda is so vague it makes Obama's look like four-dimensional road map. At least the president has a record to run on: As he reminded viewers again and again Monday night, there is only one commander-in-chief in the race.
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