By John Rapley
Last Wednesday in Denver, Mitt Romney looked like the guy who just got called to the job interview of a lifetime, and knew he had one chance to impress the panel. Barack Obama looked like the guy who has the job, thinks he should keep it, but has just been told he will have to resit his interview.
The Republican presidential nominee's poised and smooth delivery, his enthusiasm, and his forceful attacks and defences led many Americans to at least give him a second look. President Obama, by contrast, was surprisingly tentative and withdrawn. He looked more like a bored professor in a down-at-heel community college who really wished he could be somewhere else.
While Mr Romney didn't score any knockout punches, nor deliver much in the way of the 'zingers' he promised beforehand, nonetheless he put some wind back in his rather forlorn-looking sails. Republican commentators and strategists left the debates energised. Democratic reaction, on the other hand, varied from disappointed to desperate.
In hindsight, though, pundits should probably have foreseen the first presidential debate would go Mitt Romney's way. It had to. When you enjoy a narrow lead, as did Mr Obama, you cannot risk a knockout punch that misses and leaves you exposed, but can hope to play it safe and parry the blows. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, had to put everything into a good debate performance. He did. It's a safe bet that Mr Obama will now be giving more attention to their remaining two meetings.
Besides, pre-debate polls indicated that by a large margin, voters expected Mr Obama to score an easy victory. Because of his impressive oratorical skills, people tend to assume that anytime he opens his mouth, he takes the floor. In fact, as he openly admits, debating is not his forte. Last week's outing would have adjusted expectations to a more realistic level, lowering the barriers to his possible success in the subsequent debates.
Plus, incumbents, even very good speakers, often lose first debates. One must recall that presidents are rather accustomed to having their way. Moreover, they tend to be very busy men, so underpreparing for a debate is not common. The cost-benefit calculation for a challenger leads to a different outcome. It's a safe bet that the president's campaign advisers won't need to impress upon him that he'll need to up his game next time around.
More work for Romney
So while last week's debate would have killed any possible emergent hopes that the president could now cruise to victory, he still enjoys the edge. Snap polls confirmed that while most viewers felt Mr Romney won the debate, he didn't yet change many voting intentions. Still, it's at the margins that the debate is having a big impact. A few tight congressional races might not now tilt Democratic, and Republican campaigners are feeling a renewed optimism and energy. Their opponents, meanwhile, are growing just a little restless and anxious.
Moreover, between now and the next presidential debate, a lot will happen. Not only will both candidates continue taking their message directly to the people, but this week sees the debate between Vice-President Joe Biden and his challenger Paul Ryan. Congressman Ryan is a persuasive speaker, and will likely prove a strong foe to his gaffe-prone rival.
On the other hand, last Friday's job figures, which reported a surprise drop in the unemployment rate, were welcome news for the president. All the same, between now and election day, there could still be a major foreign-policy crisis, or further revelations about the lax security at the Libyan mission where the American ambassador was recently killed.
Finally, Mitt Romney may win another debate. The mere fact that Mr Obama changes his approach and prepares better for the next debate is no guarantee he will run away with it. The race, already close fought, got closer last week. It's now a safe bet that this campaign will be going to the wire on November 5.
John Rapley is a foreign affairs analyst. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.