Last night was Romney's second debate and Obama's first. The president - or rather the candidate, the man who wants your vote - actually turned up, displaying the energy, conviction and zest for combat so conspicuously absent from the presidential podium two weeks back.
After a somewhat nervous first answer, Obama quickly got into his stride. He was the first to go directly on the attack against his opponent, turning to face him as he did so, and went on to throw punch after punch. He pointed out the suspicious vagueness of Romney's tax plan ("sketchy deal") got in a cheeky dig at Romney's wealth ("Your pension is bigger than mine") and detonated the 47% grenade in his final remarks. For most of the time he seemed more relaxed, friendly and in control of the debate than Romney. His answer on women's issues was excellent, and a hundred times better than Romney, who spluttered through it with a reference to how he used to let his chief of staff go home early so she could cook for her family.
I don't think this win was as decisive for Obama as Romney's was last time out, however, because Romney wasn't as weak. He was ragged at times, awkward at others ("binders full of women") and displayed a very Romney-esque obsession with the rules which led him to be quite rude to the moderator. But he showed passion and feistiness (too much at times) and gave his supporters some strong moments to cheer. His best answer involved a well-rehearsed and powerfully delivered litany of Obama's broken economic promises, concluding that while Obama was a nice guy and a good speaker, his policies weren't working.
Obama didn't quite drive his main arguments home. He seemed to have a theme during the first twenty minutes - that you can't believe a word this guy says ("What Governor Romney said just isn't true..."). But then he let it drop. And when a questioner asked about Bush - a gift of a question for the Democrats - he gave a rambling and confusing answer when he should have simply said Romney = Bush. And then said it again.
I also think that the exchange on Benghazi, while an embarrassment for Romney within the context of the debate itself, wasn't unambiguously good for the president in the context of the campaign. It puts the spotlight on a tricky issue for him. The fact is - forms of words notwithstanding - his administration did give the impression that the Benghazi attacks were the result of a riot in response to an anti-Islamic film. That later turned out not to be true, and they changed their story. They know they got it wrong, which is why Hillary took up the human shield position the day before the debate. The question is whether blame can be pinned on the president. That question wasn't bottomed-out last night because of Romney's screw-up. But it will be returned to in the final debate (which focuses on foreign policy) and you can bet Romney will have got his facts straight by then.
Nonetheless, Obama, who seemed half in love with easeful defeat two weeks ago, appears to have peered into the abyss and decided that he does, after all, want to win this thing. He largely pulled off the incredibly difficult trick of being aggressive towards his opponent while staying focused on the questioners, and remembering to charm. He looked like a happy warrior. If he loses now, he will at least have been in a fight.
And thus, the great panic of the liberals comes to an end, for now anyway. I don't know if this debate will move the polls, but I'd be surprised if it didn't stop Romney making more gains, and I wouldn't be surprised if Obama saw a small bounce. I suspect we will settle back to a one to two point lead for Obama - back where we were before the conventions. Importantly, though, Obama's own supporters will have had at least some of their confidence and enthusiasm restored.
The pity of it, for Democrats, is that if the Obama we saw last night had turned up in Denver, this contest would be over already.