DENVER — The solid verdict for Mitt Romney following the first presidential debate — on style points, at a minimum — has pushed the Obama campaign to rethink strategy and the Republican team to reload.
The much-anticipated debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday surprised advisers in both camps, both because of Obama’s passive approach, and for Romney’s aggressive, crisp, and confident attack.
How this performance, the most widely viewed event of the campaign so far, affects the race will become apparent in coming days as new polls are released in the key swing states where the president has built a lead. Another milestone in the campaign will be the release Friday morning of updated monthly jobless figures.
But the debate disparity between Obama and Romney has prompted immediate rethinking among the president’s advisers and a reenergized push to build on momentum among Republicans.
“There is some strategic judgment that has to be made, and we’ll make it,” said David Axelrod, senior adviser to the Obama campaign. “I’m sure that he will consider his approach moving forward.”
Axelrod and other campaign officials likened Romney’s showing to “theater” and countered that Obama was focused on providing clarity to his vision for the country. That approach avoided references to Romney’s links to Bain Capital, the “47 percent” video, and women’s health issues — all of which have been assailed by Obama’s ads — and left observers from both parties stunned by the omission.
David Plouffe, a senior Obama campaign adviser, dismissed the importance of using the debate to attack Romney’s comments about the 47 percent of Americans he had described as “victims” who believe they are entitled to government handouts. That remark, delivered at a private fund-raiser, “is a fully known thing that’s baked into the cake,” Plouffe said.
“Sure, there might have been an exchange where that came up,” he said. “But our view, again, was to say where we want to take the country on the economy.”
Romney supporters were elated by his performance.
“It was Mitt Romney taking a vital shot to show the country who he really is and to puncture the image of him created by a couple of hundred million dollars of negative advertising,” said Mike Murphy, the chief strategist for Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign.
“They saw a 3-D Mitt Romney, with a lot to say, a vibe of enthusiasm, and a lot of ideas. The president looked like a midlevel bureaucrat in the old Soviet Union reading the crop report.”
‘‘Victory is in sight,’’ Romney said in an e-mail appeal to supporters for donations. He then flew to Virginia, where he sought to capitalize on debate excitement in a rally with running mate Paul Ryan and country singer Trace Adkins.
Obama, too, returned to the stump, showing no reticence in attacking Romney in a rally in Denver .
“When I got onto the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney,” Obama said to laughter. “But it couldn’t have been Mitt Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. The fellow on stage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.”
A CBS News poll of uncommitted voters, conducted before and after the 90-minute debate, indicated Romney had made great strides in critical areas in the first face-to-face debate.
Before the debate, when asked whether Romney “cares about your needs and problems,” 30 percent agreed and 63 percent disagreed. After, the numbers flipped, with 68 percent saying Romney cares and 36 percent saying he does not.
Overall, 56 percent said they viewed him in a better light after the debate; 11 percent said their opinion of him was worse.
Democratic strategists conceded that polls might tighten toward Romney in the short term, but that his new supporters probably would have committed to him anyway. Plouffe indicated that any bump is likely to be too little, too late.
“Is he going to take the lead in Ohio?” Plouffe asked. “If he doesn’t, he’s not going to be president.”
Romney’s performance did give wavering conservatives a solid reason to declare their allegiance, said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who advised presidential candidates Al Gore and John F. Kerry.
“They’ve now got the letter of transit out of Casablanca,” Devine said, referring to the famed movie. “They’re in the plane and on their way.”
Ralph Reed, who once mobilized the Christian Coalition and is trying to turn out conservative voters with the Faith and Freedom Coalition, praised Romney’s “coherent vision."
“For someone who has been so often and vociferously criticized for allegedly lacking a core and being ideologically mushy and malleable, Romney articulated conservative convictions that were refreshing, surprising, and compelling,” Reed said.
Republicans, however, stressed that one debate is not a game-changer, and Democrats saw some progress for Obama.
Romney linked himself with a voucher system for Medicare during the debate, said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum . He also stated that his tax-paring plans would not increase the financial burden on the middle class.Obama has said Romney could not make that work by closing loopholes and deductions for businesses and the wealthy.
Now, Obama supporters said, Romney is stuck with those positions.
Shrum agreed with Devine that polls might tighten and said he does not believe the race has changed significantly. Nevertheless, Shrum said he expects that Obama will have a different demeanor in the next debates, scheduled for Oct.16 at Hofstra University and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.
“I don’t think that’ll happen again,” Shrum said of Obama’s low-intensity approach.
Devine speculated that Obama’s staff made a deliberate decision not to launch personal attacks against Romney. “For a guy who’s winning a race in large measure because people like him, I don’t think strategically you can say that was such a terrible choice,” Devine said.
In hindsight, he said, “maybe they would do it differently.”
That difference has long been evident in Obama’s campaign appearances, in which he delivers an animated stump speech that takes direct, personal aim at Romney.
That style was on display at the Denver rally on Thursday.
“When [Romney] was asked what he’d actually do to cut the deficit and reduce spending, he said he’d eliminate funding for public television,” Obama said. “That was his answer. I mean, thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird.”
Axelrod said Obama the debater might channel some of Obama the campaigner in the future. “You can’t allow someone to stand there and basically manhandle the truth and not deal with that. I’m sure that that is a takeaway from this debate,” Axelrod said.
For their part, Republicans said their candidate might be hitting a long-awaited stride.
Romney “has been under enormous attack — the Obama campaign has excoriated him and done a good job at it,” said Patrick Griffin, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire. On Wednesday, he “refuted those charges very effectively with both substance and style.”