We have a brand-new ballgame
Mitt Romney on Wednesday night turned in the finest debate performance of any candidate of either party in the 52 years since Richard Nixon faced John F. Kennedy, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan's demolition of Jimmy Carter in 1980.
But where Reagan won with style and quips — “There you go again” — Romney crushed President Obama on both substance and style.
Obama was mauled, with facts, figures, anecdotes, arguments, jokes and quips. A smiling Romney was on offense all night. And the president's performance seems inexplicable.
The verdict on the Denver encounter — that Romney turned in the performance of his life and that the president was outclassed and lost badly — was virtually unanimous.
The defense offered by the Obama spinners is that Romney was brazenly changing positions right up there on stage, that he was not telling the truth about his positions, that he was misstating facts.
But that leaves a glaring question: Why, then, didn't the president call him out? To this they have no answer.
Where does the race stand, a month from Election Day?
We have a brand-new ballgame here. But if the campaign of 2012 is not lost, not by a long shot, it is not won, either.
The first sign of how great a recovery Romney made will come next week in the head-to-head polls, when the nation has absorbed the news that Obama not only got waxed, he came off as a man exhausted, weary with the duties of the office, who lacks the fire and energy to lead us out of the economic doldrums in which this country finds itself.
Yet even if the national polls find Romney surging, polls in the battleground states will have to turn dramatically, as early voting already is taking place in half of the country. And that voting began when it appeared that Obama was coasting to a second term.
Perhaps the greatest advance Romney made in the debate was that, for once, he came off not just as a tough businessman and resolute budget-cutter who can put the nation's fiscal house in order, but as something of a conservative of the heart.
The reaction of the Obamaites to the thrashing their man sustained is probably not going to be sportsmanlike. We will now hear more of the Gordon Gekko of Bain Capital writing off the 47 percent and more on the missing tax returns and Cayman Islands account.
But if we do, that will also tell the nation something.
It will testify to the truth that Obama is not the nice guy he is portrayed as being. And if his campaign reverts to the low road, it will convey another unmistakable message: i.e., the president cannot win on his record; he cannot win in debates about the future.
Given his performance, one of the worst in debate history, Obama cannot afford to lose a second or third debate like that. This crushing defeat has to be shown to be, and to be seen as, an aberration.
Otherwise, the country may conclude that no matter how much it likes him, Obama as a leader is burned out, a mechanic who has tried every tool in the toolbox but cannot get the machinery running again.
The first debate made the race a tossup again. The second could decide it.
Pat Buchanan is the author of “Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?”