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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney talks to senior advisor Bob White on his campaign plane at the airport in Denver, Colorado Thursday Oct 4, 2012. (BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney talks to senior advisor Bob White on his campaign plane at the airport in Denver, Colorado Thursday Oct 4, 2012. (BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)

Goodbye Robot Mitt: Three surprises from last night's presidential debate Add to ...

Gleeful Republicans – who only weeks earlier channeled deep doubts about the Mitt Romney campaign strategy – rejoiced the morning-after at the Republican candidate’s strong performance during the first presidential debate held Wednesday night in Denver, Colorado.

“BREAKING NEWS: The empty chair confirms it will stand in for Barack Obama at the next debate. No one will notice the difference,” tweeted conservative blogger Erick Erickson of the Red State blog.

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Others viewed the night in more historic terms.

“Mitt Romney stood and delivered the best debate performance by a Republican presidential candidate in more than two decades,” writes William Kristol , the influential conservative commentator and editor of The Weekly Standard.

That is not quite Ronald Reagan territory – whose strong presidential debate performance in 1980 endeared him to Americans and helped win the White House – but awfully close in the eyes of some Republicans.

The first presidential debate may have gone deep in to the policy weeds – not exactly gripping prime time television – but it did yield several surprises.

The return of the ‘Massachusetts Moderate’

During the Republican leadership campaign, Mitt Romney’s rivals used the ‘Massachusetts Moderate’ label against the former Massachusetts governor as a kind of expletive.

In attacks ads and on the debate stage, Republicans were reminded of Mr. Romney’s moderate record on healthcare, taxes, abortion, and working closely with Democrats.

Being perceived as to the left of the Republican party was not going secure the presidential nomination.

Mr. Romney appealed to the Tea Party base of the party – and left many wondering how, or when, he would pivot to the center and appeal to a broader electorate.

The first presidential debate is being seen as Mr. Romney’s pivot.

“The main story – and big surprise – of the debate was the return of Mitt Romney the Massachusetts Moderate. Romney spoke positively about the need for regulation. Even when asked pointblank by [moderator] Jim Lehrer if regulation was excessive – a standard part of his stump speech – he said in some area we have too much, in others too little,” said Boston University political historian Bruce Schulman.

“He positioned himself to the left of Obama on Medicare, suggesting that he’ll add money to traditional Medicare and that he won’t cut taxes for the wealthy. The President clearly didn’t expect it or know how to call him on that,” added Mr. Schulman.

The key thing to watch, as Mr. Schulman points out, is how Mr. Romney’s positions will play among the very conservatives who had such difficulty coming around to Mr. Romney in the first place – questioning his conservative credentials and whether they were heartfelt.

“Will the fact that he attacked Obama [during the presidential debate] satisfy them [conservatives] even though he deserted them on so many points of principle?” wondered Mr. Schulman.

The mysterious disappearance of Barack Obama the attack machine

On the campaign trail, President Obama has been hitting Mitt Romney hard over his tenure at Bain Capital and his role in businesses that were “pioneers” in outsourcing American jobs to foreign firms.

He has not shied away when it comes to reminding voters about what Mr. Romney thinks about the “47 per cent” and how the president should be the president of all Americans.

But on Wednesday night in Denver, Colorado President Obama left his sharpest lines of attack off the stage and for the campaign trail.

The decision left many Democrats exasperated and stumped. The issue was put to Obama adviser David Plouffe by an MSNBC television panel.

“First of all on the 47 per cent, that’s an issue that just about 100 per cent of the country knows about,” said Mr. Plouffe, as reported by Politico . “It’s been chewed on over and appropriately so. The reason it’s called Romney’s problem is because it wasn’t a gaffe. It was a revealing moment. We we’ve run advertising on it so our strategy here was not zingers necessarily.”

The “pioneers of outsourcing” and “47 per cent” attacks have moved voters in key battle ground states. But for a national audience tuning in for the first presidential debate of 2012, the Obama campaign strategy was to keep the mud slinging off the debate stage. The aim may have been to ensure that the incumbent came across as presidential.

But given the lackluster performance by President Obama – whether it was selling his achievements or attacking his opponent on his policies – it is likely a very different debater will show up for the town hall presidential debate in two week’s time: more prepared, more energetic, and quite possibly more direct in his attacks, especially attacks that have had traction among voters.

Goodbye Robot Mitt, hello Human Mitt?

Turning a strong debate performance in to a new trajectory for the Mitt Romney campaign is no easy task.

“I’d expect the race to close by a point or two, leaving Obama with a narrow lead,” said Professor Paul Brewer at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication.

“I would be surprised to see a dramatic shift, however, given how solidified most voters’ perceptions already are. The one problem that I don’t think Romney fully addressed was closing his “likability” gap,” he added.

Mitt Romney may have outdone President Obama on the debate stage – but he needs to win undecided voters and change peoples’ perceptions fast.

That is because, simply put, the more Americans got to know Mitt Romney during the Republican leadership campaign over the winter, the less they liked him.

His favorability ratings were very low coming out the GOP race, but have been climbing steadily. But President Obama still leads on the important likeability issue.

And on the question of which candidate voters think understands their problems and struggles, more Americans choose President Obama.

Mitt Romney’s stiffness and difficulty connecting with voters on the campaign trail once resulted in his wife telling a Baltimore radio station that, in fact, her husband had a sense of humour and that “we better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out.”

Mr. Romney may not have caught up with President Obama on the likeability issue. But what many viewers saw last night was a moderate-sounding candidate who was relaxed, passionate, and presidential. He sought several times to connect with voters through stories about the struggles of ordinary Americans.

And at times, he was funny.

“Congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary. I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me,” said Mr. Romney in the opening minutes of the debate on a night when the Obamas would have been celebrating their twentieth anniversary.

He even made light of cutting a federal subsidy to PBS, and possibly endangering popular programs: “I like PBS. I like Big Bird,” he said, referring to the Sesame Street program that airs on the public broadcasting channel. “I like you, too,” he added, looking at debate moderator and PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer.

Sharing the debate stage with the president often gives the challenger a boost. The next set of voter surveys will show whether, just over four weeks from voting day, enough of them decided that candidate Romney deserves to be President Romney – and thereby changing the trajectory of the race.

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