The tweet stream and the immediate spin after the presidential debate Wednesday night reflected a fairly strong consensus that Mitt Romney won. Flash polls by both CNN and CBS after the debate showed a decisive Romney win. The CNN poll showed respondents gave him a 67-25 percent edge in public perception over President Barack Obama.
"Very important night for Mitt Romney. And he rose to the challenge," tweeted Chuck Todd at NBC.
Rachel Maddow at MSNBC demurred: "I don't know who won tonight," she said.
Bill Maher tweeted, "I can't believe i'm saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter."
Tweet of the night might go to Vanity Fair, which tweeted, " ... Obama wouldn't win a student council election against a chubby nerd with that closing argument."
Andrew Sullivan, a dogged left-leaning attack dog was openly despondent. "How is Obama's closing so (expletive deleted) sad, confused, lame? He choked. He lost. He may even have lost election tonight."
Conservative humorist David Burge tweeted, "Remember when they found out about Milli Vanilli? Yeaahhp. Pretty much that."
And University of Virginia uber-political scientist Larry Sabato tweeted, "Well, that should take care of any D overconfidence about the election."
And James Carville, of all people: "I didn't want to reach this conclusion but I did...Romney wanted to be there...Obama looked like he didn't want to be there."
And setting aside style for substance, National Journal's Josh Kraushaar called the debate "one of the most substantive TV debates in the modern era. Refreshing contrast from GOP primary."
The commentators at MSNBC were despondent. Chris Matthews' leg was numb.
"What was (Obama) doing tonight?" Matthews asked, "He went in there disarmed. He was like, I've got 90 minutes, and I'm just going to get through this thing, and I don't even look at this guy, where Romney — I loved the split screens — staring at Obama, addressing him, like the prey. He did it just right. 'I'm coming at an incumbent. I gotta beat him. I've got to beat the champ, and I'm going to beat him tonight. And I don't care about this moderator, whatever he thinks he is, because I'm going to ignore him.' What was Romney doing? He was WINNING!"
On style and rhetoric, Romney was much more effective. In a pattern he also showed in the primary debates, Romney almost always squared his shoulders to Obama and spoke directly to him. He used "you" repeatedly, taking the conversation straight at the opponent. Obama, like most debaters, looked into the middle distance, or spoke vaguely to the moderator.
Romney used lists, but used them effectively. He almost never opened his mouth without knowing the three, four or five points he was going to make, and he made them, and usually summarized them, without appearing the least bit rote or forced.
Romney would not let himself be cut off. Somehow he managed to wrestle for the ball, time and time again, without appearing to knee the moderator or the president.
Romney would also not allow a key point to go unchallenged. A funny exchange occurred early in the debate where Obama insisted that Romney's tax plan involved a $5 trillion tax cut. Romney directly contradicted it. And Obama repeated it again. Romney would never let it slide.
To counter a favorite Obama meme, Romney introduced a clever phrase: "trickle down government." He also introduced a useful budgetary metric: "Is this project so important that it is worth borrowing money from China to fund?" And then he singled out PBS, and even took on Big Bird with a "no."
Romney scored major substantive hits on several occasions, including repeated hits on Medicare, tying the $716 billion Medicare trust fund shift to Obamacare around the president's neck.
Another major hit occurred when Romney turned a minor dispute over education funding into a direct slam on failed "green investments." He repeatedly hit the $90 billion invested in companies like Solyndra, and got there by agreeing with Obama that choices reflect priorities, and that education deserved the funding more than crony capitalists.
Obama struggled with "ums" and "ers" throughout the night, and once even began a comment with "er yeh eh." He appears to have tried to counter this tic with an occasional "and" or just a blank pause, but it was clear that he had to stop and think more than Romney.
Obama appeared to have a limited number of talking points, often repeated them, and seemed to rely on filler in and around them. He wore a blue tie that perfectly matched the background and gave the strange appearance of a tie-shaped hole in his chest. He did not look comfortable all night.
In advance of the debate, Michael Knox Beran suggested applying Samuel Johnson's "five-minute rule."
"Johnson said that you could not stand beside Edmund Burke for five minutes while taking shelter from the rain without concluding that you were in the presence of an extraordinary man," Beran wrote. "In the same way, you can’t watch two men talk in the glare of klieg lights for 90 minutes without sensing that one of them is in some important way better than the other."
Beran made no predictions about which candidate would end up in that role, but after Wednesday night, Romney's offer to share his umbrella certainly seems much more plausible than it did Wednesday morning.