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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, answers a question as President Barack Obama listens during the first 2012 U.S. presidential debate, in Denver Oct. 3, 2012.

RICK WILKING/REUTERS

Two esteemed observers of U.S. politics will provide live assessments of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates for the Globe and Mail. The author, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Shribman, writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he is executive editor. J ournalist and speechwriter John O'Sullivan is a writer and editor-at-large of the conservative magazine the National Review.

It was billed as the Great Debate, but Wednesday night's confrontation instead was the Great Reversal.

With so much on the line – the presidency and the destiny of a nation still convulsed in economic distress and wrestling with unresolved issues overseas – President Barack Obama adopted the rhetoric of the right while former Gov. Mitt Romney adopted the rhetoric of the left. Yes, it was unmistakable that Mr. Romney was the Republican and Mr. Obama the Democrat, yet it was striking how in their zeal to appeal to a national television audience the two men employed the words and symbols of their rivals.

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Throughout the evening Mr. Obama, who faces criticism that he has presided over a dramatic rise in the federal deficit, accused his opponent of advocating policies that he charged would increase the deficit. At the same time, Mr. Romney, whose Republican Party is on the defensive for advocating tax cuts and favouring the wealthy, repeatedly disavowed tax cuts for the rich.

The result was a severe case of viewer vertigo. Mr. Romney emphasized caring for the poor and the sick, ordinarily a Democratic strength, and Mr. Obama spoke of economic growth, playing a card from the Republican hand. But there was more. Mr. Obama embraced the aspirations of small businesses, which in the past two decades have been the muscular mainstays of the new Republican Party, while Mr. Romney spoke for lowering taxes on the middle-class, the principal entreaty used for two generations by the Democrats.

Though this was a rhetorical melding, Wednesday was far from an evening of mush. This was serious-minded political argument, presented by two Harvard-trained masters of the craft – and masters of the (sometimes mind-numbing) minutiae of politics and policy. No rhetorical flourishes, no flashy thrusts, only deft parries. And a furious cascade of figures, a jobs program for fact-checkers who will be toiling well into the weekend.

But throughout the evening the challenges facing these two candidates for the White House were clear.

Mr. Obama, the onetime outsider, was necessarily forced to lean on his record – so he spoke in the past tense while Mr. Romney, now the outsider, spoke in the future tense. That changed the equilibrium of American politics, for it was Mr. Obama who only four years ago spoke of hope and change –with the emphasis on change. Meantime, Mr. Romney's challenge was to appear the equal of an incumbent president whose personal appeal remains high even as skepticism of his record as president persists.

The twittersphere and the Washington commentariat will bicker for the next several days over who won the debate, leaving aside the question of whether winning a debate makes much a difference. (Sen. John F. Kerry was the consensus victor of all three debates in 2004 and still lost the election.) But this was an evening in which Mr. Romney established himself as a plausible alternative to President Obama. That was one of his goals, though this debate lacked the knock-out punch his advisers hoped he might produce –preferably in the first 30 minutes of rhetorical combat.

But it was also an evening without the sort of gaffe that will become part of the folklore of American politics. It was a night without much drama, perhaps a letdown for some viewers more interested in pugilism than policy. Then again, this was a presidential debate – a reality show, not professional wrestling.

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David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who has followed U.S. Politics for more than 30 years for the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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