WASHINGTON -- For weeks, Republican Party elders fretted that the presidential race was slipping through Mitt Romney's fingers. The handwringing – for the moment – has stopped.

The GOP nominee's strong head-to-head showing against President Barack Obama in their first debate earned Romney praise from some of his harshest critics and frequent doubters, maybe even too much.

"This was one of the best debate performances in my life," radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh gushed before getting his dates a bit confused. "I know people are saying, `In the last 20 years? That would take us back to 1980.' And Reagan was awesome. But this was awesome from start to finish."

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol seemed to declare detente with Romney's campaign after weeks of urging the Republican to revamp his strategy.

"Mitt Romney stood and delivered the best debate performance by a Republican presidential candidate in more than two decades," Kristol said of Romney's Wednesday night performance. "Romney spoke crisply about the next four years as well as the last four years, was detailed in clarifying the choice of paths ahead, and seemed more comfortable, more energetic and even more presidential than the incumbent."

Kristol also asked a question probably on the minds of many in the GOP: "Can his campaign turn a very good debate into a true inflection point in the presidential race?"

For months, GOP critics have complained openly about the state of Romney's campaign. They griped that Romney hadn't responded aggressively enough to Obama attacks. They questioned his focus on fundraising in the homestretch and complained that he wasn't detailing his proposals for on-the-fence voters. They also grumbled that Romney seemed more interested in winning the news cycle than in executing a broader winning strategy.

Some political professionals openly blamed his campaign leadership for sagging poll numbers amid a sour economy that should be dooming the president's re-election bid.

Those worries have faded in the aftermath of a debate for which Romney spent parts or all of at least eight days preparing.

He had rebuttals ready for Obama's criticism and braced for the expected charges. He had fresh catchy rhetoric – "trickle-down government," for example – to criticize Obama for government spending and didn't take tough language personally.

Romney didn't go off-script, as he did in the primaries when he challenged one former rival to a $10,000 bet during a debate. Physically, Romney seemed rested compared to a weary-looking Obama, and he didn't let his rival determine the agenda.

"This was the first time you saw Romney frame the debate on his terms. Many of us have been wondering: Why has this been taking so long?" said Keith Appell, a Republican consultant who advises outside conservative groups.

Even Romney's former GOP rivals lavished him with praise.

"Romney rocked it!" tweeted former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the same candidate who at one point called Romney the worst Republican in the country to face Obama.

"For the first time, Romney did a very good job of linking this horrible economy to Barack Obama's policies," said Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist and former Santorum aide. "Up until then, Obama has done a very good job of linking it all to George Bush. Romney said, `Not so fast. These are your policies; this has been the slowest recovery and this is your fault.'"

Still, for all the enthusiasm for Romney's performance, Republicans characterized it as a good day but not necessarily a game-changer. They are mindful that a month is a long time in politics and said that Romney needs to work hard to capitalize on any boost he may have gotten out of it. They also were keenly aware that Romney and Obama will meet twice more on the debate stage before Nov. 6.

"I did not think we'd have a home run debate in the first debate," said Nick Ryan, another former Santorum adviser. "If we didn't get a home run, we certainly got a triple."

The question now likely on the minds of many: Can Romney do it two more times – and really change the trajectory of a race polls show is close?

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  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) following the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney went head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (L) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finish their debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, shakes hands with President Barack Obama following the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • President Barack Obama hugs First lady Michelle Obama after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, and President Barack Obama speak after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama laugh after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in shakes hands with Ann Romney after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and family talk to President Barack Obama and family after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking)

  • Left, President Barack Obama hugs his wife Michelle with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney hugs his wife Ann following the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama hugs his wife Michelle following the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama gestures during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gestures during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney smiles as President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • President Barack Obama smiles at moderator Jim Lehrer during the first presidential debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the first presidential debate with President Barack Obama at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama points to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama answers a question of moderator Jim Lehrer during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama smiles as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • President Barack Obama, right, listens to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer (C) of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) speaks during the first presidential debate with US President Barack Obama October 3, 2012 at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate the first presidential debate in Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's shadow is reflected during the first presidential debate President Barack Obama withat the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • President Barack Obama speaks during the first presidential debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama listens during his debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama debates Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during his debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the first presidential debate at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer (C) of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Barack Obama, Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and President Barack Obama, right, speak during their first debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama answers a question as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • President Barack Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Rick Wilking, Pool)

  • Obama And Romney Square Off In First Presidential Debate In Denver

    DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 03: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) listens as Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) speaks during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

  • Obama And Romney Square Off In First Presidential Debate In Denver

    DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 03: Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

  • Obama And Romney Square Off In First Presidential Debate In Denver

    DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 03: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) speaks as Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) listens during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama listens during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    The shadow of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is projected beneath a copy of The Declaration of Independence during the presidential debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participates in the first presidential debate with US President Barack Obama at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012, moderated by Jim Lehrer of the PBS NewsHour. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

  • President Barack Obama answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the first presidential debate with President Barack Obama at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, listens to President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • President Barack Obama watches as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney points to President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • US-VOTE-2012-DEBATE

    US President Barack Obama speaks during his debate with Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Magness Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012. After hundreds of campaign stops, $500 million in mostly negative ads and countless tit-for-tat attacks, Obama and Romney go head-to-head in their debut debate. AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)