President Obama has enjoyed some glorious nights during the course of his high-flying political career. But the occasion of his first 2012 debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney will not rank among them.
For so long cast as the awkward, hapless politician, Romney turned rampant during their first one-on-one showdown. Energetic where the president looked tired, optimistic where Obama cut a morose figure, if this was Romney's last gasp, he drew a lungful.
After the debate and early today, Democratic partisans have gone to air and print with some excuses for Obama's prostrate performance.
The most intriguing concept came from former Vice President Al Gore. Speaking on his Current TV, the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee asked his audience to consider the geography.
"I'm going to say something controversial here," Gore began. "Obama arrived in Denver at 2 p.m. today - just a few hours before the debate started. Romney did his debate prep in Denver. When you go to 5,000 feet, and you only have a few hours to adjust - I don't know…"
Comedian and political commentator John Fugelsang, also on the roundtable, knew exactly what Gore was talking about.
"The first time I ever did stand-up in Denver, I had the same exact effect," he said. "I flew in that day and your lungs aren't acclimated to that kind of air, yea, it makes you drawn, it makes you off. The president had an off night."
Filmmaker Michael Moore was similarly distressed by Obama's showing, but he didn't blame the Mile High City's compromised oxygen supply.
First Moore turned on moderator Jim Lehrer, the PBS anchor who struggled throughout the night in keeping the candidates in check.
"Eastwood's chair would do a better job," Moore said in a tweet.
Then, 15 minutes later, at 10:27 p.m., the "Bowling For Columbine" director re-focused his ire on the Obama team.
He tweeted again: "This is what happens when u [sic] John Kerry as your debate coach."
Kerry, it should be noted, was not Obama's debate coach. Rather, he stood in for Romney, playing the Republican's part during preparatory sparring sessions.
The tone from inside the Obama campaign was more restrained. During a call with reporters this morning, top campaign adviser David Axelrod argued the president could never have kept up with all of Romney's "fraudulent" claims.
"[Obama] made a choice last night to answer the questions last night that were asked and to talk to the American people about what we need to do to move forward," Axelrod said, "not to get into serial fact checking with Governor Romney, which can be an exhausting, never- ending pursuit."
Former George W. Bush speechwriter turned self-proclaimed centrist leader David Frum weighed in with a more harrowing bit of conjecture.
"Obama's performance was so disengaged," he wrote, "that I was left to wonder: had that Daily Caller/Fox News tape got inside his head? Was he so determined not to look like an angry black man that he ended up looking … kind of like a wimp?"
And then there was MSNBC "Hardball" host Chris Matthews.
"I don't know what he was doing out there," Matthews said of Obama, "he had his head down, he was enduring the debate instead of fighting it."
"He should watch 'Hardball'!"