Mitt Romney got the debate he needed by bringing the campaign back to the recent past.
Romney's point-by-point critique of President Obama's record was sharp, specific and sustained. He managed to steer the debate toward the central challenge of the Obama reelection campaign: the disappointment over his own unfulfilled promise.
"But you've been president four years," Romney said, in an unlikely zinger early in the debate, unfurled when Obama talked up his deficit plans.
"We know that the path we're taking is not working. It's time for a new path," Romney said as the 90 minutes drew to a close, speaking more broadly about the economy.
It was a highly clinical debate, even wonky. The exchanges were noticeably lacking in humanity, geared very much for grown-ups - notwithstanding Romney's Big Bird shout-out.
Obama had Romney on the defensive at key points, particularly when the discussion came to entitlements and the Paul Ryan plan. But he didn't come primed to make this race about his opponent the same way Romney did.
By the time the candidates left the stage, the president was confronted again by his biggest obstacle in the race.
Obama is running, once again, against his own record - and he has an opponent who's primed to make the case more effectively than he has to date.