He rattled Romney into a “binderfuls of women” blooper to describe his gubernatorial search for diversity and had him on the defensive about fact-and-figure-free claims for his plan to turn around the economy.
And yet... Particularly in the last half hour, the new improved Barack Obama let Romney off the ropes.
Asked about assault weapons on American streets, the GOP standard bearer lapsed into N.R.A. double-speak and then segued into a soliloquy about parenting:
“We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that's not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that's a great idea.”
Candy Crowley rightly reminded Romney that “the question was about these assault weapons that once were once banned and are no longer banned.”
But Obama, who had previously honed in on the gun lobby, instead of highlighting Romney’s irrelevant attack on the urban (read minority) underclass, joined him by falling into a monologue about education and preventing school dropouts. He would have done better to point out that the Aurora and Gabrielle Giffords shooters were the products of highly educated, comfortable families and that madness is not a class issue.
Overall, the President was more effective at sticking pins into the Romney balloon than making the case for why his own second term would be different. But that would have required him to blast Boehner, McConnell and the Tea Party Congress, which he clearly avoided doing, no doubt to avoid appearing whiny.
Post-debate instant polls show marked but not decisive improvement for the President and some erosion of admiration for the mythical Mitt Romney he allowed to emerge from their first encounter.
Barack Obama undid much of his self-inflicted damage last night and cheered up his admirers, but the post-convention surge that had him on the road to victory has still not revived.
He still has much to do in these last weeks.