In substance, yesterday's debate was probably a tie. In style, well that's a different story.
Once again, Mitt Romney proved very effective when attacking President Barack Obama's record. He clearly has a knack for focusing on and exploiting his opponent's vulnerabilities. In fact, during the first half hour of the debate, with Obama still in that strange subdued mode of his, Romney seemed ready to give the President a repeat dose of the Denver treatment.
However, the difference this time was Obama's willingness to both defend his record and -- in what was a dangerous gamble -- counterattack Romney at every turn, even if it was a town hall debate, where empathy is more important than enmity.
Obama was still slow to come into his own, until, suddenly, his tone and demeanor completely changed. When Romney took the risk of questioning the President's patriotism on Libya, Obama finally let himself get angry. And anger can be a liberating emotion.
But anger can also be extremely off-putting. Occasional anger, after all, can be interpreted as strength, while constant anger is usually read as contemptuous smugness. And that's precisely why I think that, in the end, Romney lost the debate. He overplayed his hand, attacking Obama with a previously unseen virulence, and eventually lost his manners.
Similar to what happened when he faced Rick Perry during the primaries, Romney got pushy, interrupting the President repeatedly, and even coming close to physically reaching for his opponent. That may have worked with a man like Perry, but it sure didn't work with Obama, who's not only the President but also generally a very well liked man.
By invading Obama's personal space, Romney wanted to appear strong -- he wanted to appear presidential. However, in his efforts, he managed to convey the opposite. And this will prove to be particularly damaging with yesterday's key demographic: women. Whichever advisor told Romney that the über-macho, domineering attitude would be appealing to women, should be fired immediately (along with the poor misguided soul who briefed Romney on Libya).
One last thought: I agree with the consensus about the quality of the debate. There's no question that this was the best, most spirited debate in decades. But it should come as no surprise. After all, these are two intellectually remarkable men vying for the presidency. Many countries would love to have that same privilege.