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President Obama beat at least one of his adversaries on the stage at Hofstra University last night. He easily outperformed that guy — whoever he was — who debated against former Gov. Mitt Romney two weeks ago in Denver.
That much was obvious — and necessary for the president. The question now is whether it will be sufficient to restore his momentum in the race itself.
Some "instant polls" and other quickie measures were heartening to the Obama camp. But no matter how much Obama's showing at Hofstra surpassed his Denver no-show, it will not eradicate the damage or make up for lost time. Only one chance remains to do so before Election Day, so the pressure that animated the Hofstra debate will be all the greater Monday night in the debate series finale in Florida.
In Denver on Oct. 3, the president had seemed stuck in second gear, unable to gain much momentum, let alone any lift. One wondered if he was striving for the hesitations people found so charming and authentic in Jimmy Stewart's acting style. Needless to say, the charm wore off quickly. The president began falling in the polls, both generally and in his key demographic groups such as women and younger voters. A visible Obama edge in the polls in nearly every battleground state gave way to a tie or a deficit in most of those same states. Electoral College projections that had the president ahead by 50 or 60 electoral votes or more on Oct. 1 shrank that lead to a handful.
That was the backdrop for Tuesday night's rematch. This time, speaking to voters directly in the town hall format, the president regularly worked up into third gear, got some momentum and made his points. He even captured flashes of the drama he brings to the stages he dominates while campaigning. He was utterly focused, fully engaged and ready to trade punches.
But did the president improve enough to eclipse his other problem? It must be said that Romney himself once again gave a strong performance in the role of a candidate challenging a sitting president. The former governor did not quite glow and gleam with the same confidence as he had in Denver, and at times the incumbent got the better of him. Indeed, Romney often seemed frustrated with both his opponent and the debate's moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, and now and then he let that show.
At least some observers were impressed enough with the president's mere improvement to say he had overshadowed Romney. Others noted that as the consensus winner of the first debate — and still the candidate rising in the polls — Romney only had to hold his own.
Surely, Romney could anticipate the headlines being written to highlight the president's comeback. But he also knew that as the days dwindle down and polls move in his favor, that comeback might well be coming too late to change the tide.
That is why even after Hofstra, the ghost of Denver will continue to haunt the Obama campaign in the days ahead. It will be said that if Obama had debated Hofstra-strong on Oct. 3, we would not now be having the same conversation about Debate No. 2.
Some even believe that had Obama fought the superprepared Romney to a draw in Denver, he would have foreclosed his rival's last best chance to overtake him. There has always been a school of thought that the first debate sets the tone for the fall campaign. Had the president done as well in that first test as he did in the second (or better), the presidential race could now be all but over. Polls that had been moving pro-Obama would have been confirmed and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Democrats could have shifted their attention (and dollars) to Senate and House races.
Instead, it has taken the Obama camp three debates (counting the vice-presidential faceoff) to refloat their flagship. And there is no guarantee that having done so, they can expect smooth sailing in the final debate.