Mitt Romney took the stage at the first presidential debate at the University of Denver last night with a lot to prove -- and he delivered.
The Republican challenger found his footing against the incumbent president in a way that forced even some of his harshest critics to acknowledge that he had a good debate.
"Governor Romney attacked pretty well; we understand that's what he had to do tonight," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in the spin room after last night's first-ever face-off between the two candidates, but, he added, Romney "didn't lay out where he wants to take this country."
Republicans were elated by Romney's performance.
"This was about as big a knock-out punch in a presidential debate as we've ever seen," said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. His spin room counterpart, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said President Obama looked "incredibly uncomfortable."
"He was not comfortable talking about taxes and the economy," Rubio said. "He had a few sound bites his advisors had fed him, but once he put those out there and Gov Romney was able to refute them, he had nothing else to say."
But as the dust clears today, and as both candidates begin a frenzied month-long period of campaigning before Nov. 6, it's worth noting that nothing has changed about Romney's steep climb to 270 electoral votes -- at least not yet. Romney aides say wait a week and the proof will be in the polling.
A focus group of Walmart moms in Las Vegas, sponsored by Walmart and moderated by bi-partisan pollsters, revealed mixed reactions to each candidate in last night's debate but a broad sense that Romney was the victor, ABC's Elizabeth Hartfield notes.
Even so, the women didn't walk away seeing Romney in a very positive light. When asked to describe their impressions of Romney, the women used words like "rude," "pushy" and "assertive" -- and when asked to clarify if assertive was positive or negative, the woman who offered that description said it was negative. The women's impressions of Obama weren't positive either. Words used to describe the president included "defeated," "backpedaling" and "speaking the same game."
And in a dial group session held last night in Aurora, Colorado by the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, a group of "weak Democrats and independents who voted for Obama in 2008 but who remain open to switching in the upcoming election" gave the president better ratings.
According to pollster Geoff Garin: "The large majority of panelists in the Aurora session were weak Democrats and independents who voted for Obama in 2008 but who remain open to switching in the upcoming election. Six in 10 respondents gave President Obama favorable ratings for his overall performance in the debate, compared with just one in seven who did so for Romney."
But as ABC Political Director Amy Walter notes, at the end of the night both men failed the empathy test. They both threw out lots of numbers and policy prescriptions but they failed to connect those to real people.