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Debate No. 1: Romney puts on a show; Obama shows he's not invincible

In the end, President Obama had significantly more speaking time than Mitt Romney, but didn't make his words count as much during Wednesday's first of three debates between the two. Photo: Ed Bark

President Obama never raised the 47 percent specter and at times seemed to be operating at 47 percent efficiency.

Mitt Romney pushed the action, looked more presidential and even skirted with being dynamic.

Perhaps this was no knockout. But at the end of this one, Obama's cut man would have been trying to close a big gash over his eye while in Romney's corner they worked to reduce the swelling from a few welts.

Wednesday night's nationally televised first of three debates between them proved one overriding point: these things can matter. And a Romney campaign in dire need of boost is now riding high for at least a few days on continuous 5 hour energy drinks.

I tweeted throughout on Romney's surprising ability to get in Obama's grill and press his conservative agenda in forceful, concise language. The President regularly spoke in halting patterns, using the word "uh" at a world record pace. He just wasn't clicking, looking smallish and at times a "little listless" (as CNN's Candy Crowley noted) during what developed into a long night for him on his 20th wedding anniversary no less.

Obama acknowledged this milestone occasion from the podium, calling his wife Michelle "sweetie." But Romney even trumped him here, joking to good effect, "I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine -- here with me."

CNN's debate coverage used a split screen throughout while also coming up with the novel idea of speaking time clocks. The president can't claim he was cheated, even though some of his supporters later said that moderator Jim Lehrer had been "dominated" by Romney's insistence on rebutting some of Obama's claims.

But the president also rather churlishly scolded Lehrer for supposedly interrupting him. And he ended up with 4 minutes and 18 seconds more speaking time than the challenger, according to CNN's clock. The final sum totals were 42:50 for Obama and 38:32 for Romney.

Not that the president used his extra words well. In fact he had too many of them, rambling at times and peppering those rambles with pauses and "uhs." His verbiage didn't cut through the way Romney's did. In a televised political debate, projection and easily grasped explanations count for a lot. Romney simply made his words hit home more -- and in significantly less time.

Moderator Lehrer is being ripped by some for being a laissez faire moderator who let both candidates get away with too much cross-talk while not rebutting them with his own sharp questions. He could have been a bit tougher, but debates are supposed to be give-and-take rather than canned excerpts from the candidates' stump speeches. Lehrer tried to keep them within their allotted time limits, although not to the point of squelching rebuttals. He's an old hand at this -- maybe too old a hand. But he's no replacement ref, and there was no need for him to continually throw flags. Which he didn't.

MSNBC's ever-windy and self-congratulatory Chris Matthews later criticized Obama's debate performance, which is stunning in itself. He also strongly implied that he would have done a far better job than Lehrer, and that today's audiences expect a moderator to forcefully interject and demand answers to previous questions. That's why Matthews will never be asked. No. 1, he's too partisan. Secondly, he'd turn any debate into his show.

The "takeaway" from Wednesday's encounter is that Romney has new life and that Obama will have to be considerably more aggressive in their second debate. No one who watched their first war of words can objectively say that the president came away with his arms raised in victory. Except for MSNBC's Al Sharpton, of course. But that's a given.