WASHINGTON - Republican Mitt Romney was fiery and having fun. President Barack Obama came off as the professor without much pop.
And while Democrats grudgingly conceded that Romney did well in Wednesday's first presidential debate, what matters is whether he changed the dynamic of a race that he appeared to be losing.
The best answers will come over the next few days: Did the debate help Romney close his polling deficit in a must-win state such as Ohio? Or take a polling lead in Florida, Virginia or the other toss-up states where Obama holds a slender lead?
The judging is best done in view of what Obama and Romney set out to do.
By that measure, Romney may not have changed the game, but he sure played it well. Obama avoided any gaffes but looked surprisingly lacklustre at times.
And he kept in his pocket one of the strongest weapons of his political arsenal, Romney's secretly videotaped remarks to donors that "47 per cent" of Americans see themselves as a bunch of entitled victims and that he could not convince them to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
The video has undermined Romney's bid for the presidency and gone to the heart of Obama's case of how differently the two men see the role of government and the people it serves.
The president never mentioned it over the 90-minute debate, even though he talks about it daily in his campaigning.
Obama's campaign disputed the notion that the president missed an opportunity. They argued that Romney's own words, which the Obama campaign is using in television ads, are more effective.
The president's biggest trouble seemed to be that he got caught up in exactly what he wanted to avoid — engaging Romney time and again on the challenger's accusations instead of turning each answer into a clear, coherent argument about how he would help people over the next four years.
Wednesday night was a rare chance for Obama in this election year to reach millions of people directly, yet the debate's jerky pace and subject detours made it hard for him to break through.
In the midst of the dense debate that lacked much discipline, something important appeared — answers on how the two men would run the country differently.
But good luck to the undecided voter who had to sort that out.
The debate often got bogged down with complicated and contradictory versions of the candidates' plans and of the truth, with a distracting dose of insider Washington references. Even voters clamouring for specific differences may have found themselves wondering why all the talk about "Bowles-Simpson" (a debt commission) and "Dodd-Frank" (a Wall Street reform law).
It did not help that moderator Jim Lehrer lost control of the debate to the point that the planned six 15-minute segments got reduced to five, a sign of how long both men took to answer questions.
"Excuse me. Excuse me. Just so everybody understands, we're way over our first 15 minutes," Lehrer said at one point.
"It's fun, isn't it?" Romney said.
Following tradition, Romney stood to gain simply by standing next to the president and holding up well.
Romney needed a commanding performance. He needed people to see him as a president, unflinching next to the guy who currently has the job.
In 10 battleground states, which don't reliably vote Democrat or Republican, none of the nonpartisan polling since before the recent Democratic and Republican conventions has found Romney holding a lead.
Romney's mission was to come across as having a better and clearer economic revival plan than Obama; to undermine the president's standing, particularly on the economy, without being petulant; to get people thinking that four more years of Obama would make their lives worse; to score that one memorable moment.
"Mr. President, you're entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts," Romney said during one of the flare-ups, this on one education.
Romney clearly had his lines ready. Two more debates await.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples and Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this analysis.
EDITOR'S NOTE — AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Follow Ben Feller on Twitter at www.twitter.com/benfellerdc
An AP News Analysis
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