10/04/2012 08:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Professor and the Pugilist

He came prepared to fight. He was smart, aggressive, engaged, charming and funny. He reassuringly spoke of his concern for the poor, the middle class, seniors, affordable healthcare, Social Security, education and teachers. He was substantive, forthcoming and seemed genuinely wanting to be there, demonstrating a clear passion for the job. If you said this was President Obama you'd be wrong. Mitt Romney delivered what pundits Thursday morning are calling the best Republican debate performance since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The key question is, what the hell happened to Obama? Where was he? Where was his passion, his engagement, his desire to be in that room? The man who showed up instead was aloof, disengaged, ill-prepared (how is that even possible given all the sequestered pre-debate prep?) and passive. He hung his head down more than a guilty 6-year-old who didn't do her chores and hardly made eye contact with Romney. He appeared nervous, fearful and shocked by his opponent's clear domination and control of the narrative. As MSNBC's Chris Matthews lamented, "He was ignoring the debate rather than fight it."

Romney's Alpha was evident from the get-go. He was energize and understood his mission, which was to paint Obama as a weak, big-government liberal who wants to raise taxes on the middle class as the nation's debt, gas prices and health care costs increase while personal incomes decrease (by $4300, Romney claimed). He succeeded. A CNN poll following the debate showed that 75% saw Romney as the victor.

And why would just 25% say that Obama won? Because Obama was as AWOL from the debate as George W. Bush was during the Vietnam War. There was no mention of Romney's infamous 47% statement. No mention of Romney's comments about sending poor, uninsured people to emergency rooms. No mention of Romney's desire to defund Planned Parenthood and overturn Roe v. Wade. No mention of Romney's statements about not needing more teachers. No mention of Bain and the layoffs of tens of thousands. No mention of Romney's "corporations are people" statement. No mention of Romney's personal taxes and his offshore investments. No mention of his running-mate Paul Ryan's plan to dismantle Medicare and privatize Social Security.

How on Earth could Romney win on the subject of healthcare when (a) his Romneycare was the model for Obamacare and (b) he and Ryan would end Medicare as we know it, send old folks into the streets shopping for insurance? Same as Bush and Dick Cheney, the guys who never served in the military, won the "tough guy" contest against decorated war hero John Kerry in 2004. The answer is simple: both Kerry and Obama allowed their opponents to define them without forcefully and effectively countering the rhetoric.

In the end, Obama's performance was stunning in its ineffectiveness. What should've been a slam-dunk became a wild air ball from half court. Should he lose a month from now, historians will mark his defeat as having been snatched from the jaws of victory in Denver on October 4th.