Wednesday night’s debate should vaporize any notion that President Obama and his team can flatten an incompetent opponent, or shift into cruise control on the road to a second term.
Before taking the University of Denver stage, Republican nominee Mitt Romney had been defined by a campaign riddled with missteps, gaffes, and incompetence. But in his biggest test, facing more than 50 million Americans, the challenger found a voice that carried. He delivered a performance that had the sometimes-scowling President looking as if he wanted to get away.
Mr. Romney did as much as he could to soften his reputation for favoring fat cats over ordinary folks. It helped that the President, curiously, did not call him out for dismissing the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income tax.
With President Obama unable or unwilling to counterpunch, Mr. Romney put him on the ropes for what he called unfulfilled promises to reduce the deficit and move the nation into prosperity. Mr. Romney also got style points for being aggressive without appearing nasty.
It isn’t clear whether Mr. Romney can build on this momentum and redirect what had been a flagging campaign. For the moment, his unexpectedly good 90 minutes will energize his volunteers and encourage his donors.
The President is still well positioned to win, with sizable leads in key battleground states such as Ohio. And Mr. Romney has yet to explain adequately a centerpiece of his campaign: how he will boost military spending, cut taxes, and reduce the deficit.
The Obama campaign should concede that the President had an off night and move on. Lame excuses, such as moderator Jim Lehrer’s failure to keep the candidates on time and on topic, only make the President look smaller.
Wednesday's debate should remind President Obama and his supporters that they can’t become complacent. A refocused president, ready and prepared to sharpen and fight for his ideas, will help all Americans decide who can better lead them into an uncertain future.