By BEN FELLER, ASSOCIATED PRESS
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 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? Or deliver the kind of performance that translates into noticeable energy on the trail, a crisper message, more likelihood that the undecided voters out there will go with him?
In terms of instant conclusions, 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 lackluster at times.
And he kept in his pocket one of the strongest weapons of his political arsenal, Romney's videotaped view that half the nation sees itself as a bunch of entitled victims. The president never mentioned it over 90 minutes even though he talks about it daily in his campaigning.
In the midst of a 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 clamoring 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).
The night's mystery was why Obama did not bring up Romney's embarrassing caught-on-tape moment from a ritzy fundraiser, in which he said "47 percent" of the people out there pay no income taxes, see themselves as victims and do not think they should "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.
It got at best an indirect nod during talk about Medicare and Social Security, both known as entitlements.
"You know, the name itself implies some sense of dependency on the part of these folks," Obama said. "These are folks who've worked hard, like my grandmother, and there are millions of people out there who are counting on this."
Obama's campaign disputed the notion that the president missed an opportunity. They argue 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.
It did not help that moderator Jim Lehrer lost control of the debate to the point that six 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.
He started off with the kind of here-is-how-this-affects-you empathy that has been missing from much of his campaign.
"Ann yesterday was at a rally in Denver," Romney said of his wife. "And a woman came up to her with a baby in her arms, and said: `Ann, my husband has had four jobs in three years, part-time jobs. He's lost his most recent job. And we've now just lost our home. Can you help us?' And the answer is, yes, we can help, but it's going to take a different path."
What Obama wanted was to leave the American people with little doubt about his plans for the next four years and how they differ from Romney's. It was a rare chance for him 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.
Even so, a status quo result, or something close, would not hurt him nearly as much as it would Romney.
By the end of a long night, the president tried to bring his agenda items back to the prideful auto workers, to the mom who went back to school.
"All those things are designed to make sure that the American people, their genius, their grit, their determination, is channeled, and they have an opportunity to succeed," Obama said.
Romney's calculus was different.
He 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, 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.