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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, right, shakes hands with President Barack Obama at the end of the first 2012 U.S. presidential debate in Denver, Oct. 3, 2012.Michael Reynolds/Pool/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, journalist and speechwriter John O'Sullivan is a writer and editor-at-large of the conservative magazine the National Review. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Shribman writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he is executive editor.

What the challenger has to achieve in a presidential debate is equivalence. He has to demonstrate that he has an equal capacity to be president as the current occupant of the White House. Once that has been achieved, the debate changes. It becomes a question of which candidate has the better policies.

By that test Romney won the first debate. He looked, if anything, more presidential than the President, crisper, more authoritative, more knowledgeable – not by a long chalk but certainly enough.

President Obama seemed somewhat nervous. He didn't discuss issues with the confidence you might expect from someone who has actually been handling them every day from the Oval Office. His performance confirmed the criticism that he is better as an orator than a debater. His best points were essentially warmed-up rhetoric from the campaign trail.

By contrast Romney was almost better at responding to Obama's points than at making his own. He demonstrated knowledge in depth on regulation, oil and gas, Obamacare, etc. He gave the impression of a highly competent executive. In addition to these personal comparisons, the debate may have dispatched one important point. Since the start of the campaign, the Democrats have had a consistent talking-point: Romney is an extremist or, at best, the prisoner of an extremist Republican party. Romney himself destroyed that in two ways: first, his demeanour and personality were moderation itself; second, he stressed his commitment to bipartisanship again and again.

But Obama's reluctance to make the charge – he accused Romney only once of extremism by my count – was even more telling. My guess is that the Democrats, having invested millions in campaign ads arguing this, cannot now make the charge stick. They will have major re-thinking to do.

After a terrible month for his campaign that had people writing Romney off, the debate changed the game. It may sound a little pretentious to quote Churchill, but this was not the end, it was not even the beginning of the end, but it was certainly the end of the beginning.

On Thursday, the campaign begins again on equal terms.

John O'Sullivan is a British-born writer on American politics who lives in Decatur, Alabama. He is editor-at large of the National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.