The first presidential debate: 4 takeaways

The Week's Editorial Staff
The Week
President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney share a laugh during the first presidential debate on Oct. 3: Of course, there weren't many laughs during the testy debate.

With a strong debate performance, Mitt Romney gives his struggling campaign a badly needed shot in the arm

On Wednesday night in Denver, President Obama and Mitt Romney met face to face for the first presidential debate of the general election. The debate, moderated by veteran journalist Jim Lehrer, focused exclusively on domestic policy, with the two candidates exchanging jabs on taxes, health care, the deficit, and education. Romney is behind in the national polls, as well as in key battleground states, and many commentators said the debate presented his best chance to turn things around. Here, four initial takeaways from the debate:

1. Romney did his campaign a huge favor
By almost all accounts, Romney put in a sterling performance, attacking Obama with vigor and an arsenal of crisp points. Romney turned in "the best debate performance by a Republican presidential candidate in more than two decades," gushed William Kristol at The Weekly Standard. What a relief for the Right.

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Others agreed:

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— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) October 4, 2012

— amy walter (@amyewalter) October 4, 2012 2. But he played fast and loose with the truth
Some commentators had trouble with Romney's allegedly loose relationship with the facts, as well as his refusal to provide specifics on how he would close the deficit or provide insurance to those with pre-existing conditions. However, as far as optics went, Romney impressed.

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— AdamSerwer (@AdamSerwer) October 4, 2012

3. Obama looked rusty... at best
Next to Romney, Obama appeared sluggish and professorial. He often declined to set the record straight when Romney misrepresented his policies, and didn't offer the most energetic defense of his first term. And there were multiple opportunities for Obama to use his usual attacks on Romney, but he chose not to. "Obama played it safe," says Zeke Miller at BuzzFeed, "opting to leave out most of the 'zingers' he's used repeatedly on the campaign trail, steering clear of attacking Romney's tax rate, his Swiss bank accounts, or his remarks about the 47 percent." Obama's omission of Romney's "47 percent" remark — in which Romney described nearly half of the country as "victims" who are "dependent on government" — was particularly noticeable, given that his campaign has emphasized it heavily in advertisements and on the stump.

SEE MORE: The presidential debate: Mitt Romney comes out swinging, wins raves

— Byron York (@ByronYork) October 4, 2012

SEE MORE: The presidential debate: Mitt Romney swears that his tax cuts won't add to the deficit

— Andrew Sullivan (@sullydish) October 4, 2012 4. Jim Lehrer got pushed around
Before Denver, Lehrer had moderated 11 presidential debates, far and away the most by any journalist. But in all his time in the presence of presidents, he apparently never met a force like Mitt Romney. Romney aggressively talked about what he wanted to talk about, and when he wanted to talk about it, which made it seem as if he owned the debate. Liberals grumbled, and even conservatives acknowledged that Romney steam-rolled the 78-year-old moderator. Critics of Lehrer were not kind.

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

SEE MORE: The presidential debate: Did moderator Jim Lehrer get steamrolled by Mitt Romney?

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