Mitt Romney's debate performance continued to wear well Thursday as President Obama's backers searched for answers to what went wrong with their candidate, who voters and pundits alike said lacked the magic that captivated the country in 2008.
Former Vice President Al Gore, the Democrats' 2000 nominee, suggested in an interview with Current TV that Mr. Obama might have suffered from a bout of altitude sickness in Denver, while liberal HBO talk show host and Obama donor Bill Maher ran with an attack that comes straight out of the Republican playbook, tweeting: "i can't believe i'm saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter."
Republicans also piled on, saying Mr. Obama laid an egg in front of the more than 58 million people that tuned in — marking an increase from the 52.4 million who watched the first presidential debate four years ago, which the party hopes translates in its favor come Election Day.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, told CNN he was "surprised" by the "president's poor performance" and that it "was so bad, if it had been a fight, they would have stopped it."
What isn't clear, though, is whether the first of the three presidential debates had changed the contours of a race that — just 24 hours earlier — appeared to be slipping out of Mr. Romney's grasp.
Post-debate polls reinforced the notion that Mr. Romney emerged as the victor in round one of the debates, but also sent a mixed message as to whether he will receive the sort of bounce that could put him in the driver's seat with a month to go before the election.
On Thursday, the Obama camp moved into damage-control mode, saying that Mr. Romney put on a "good performance" — though his claims on taxes, Medicare and the president's health care law, they said, were not "rooted in fact" and were "devoid of honesty."
"He may win the Oscar for his performance last night, but he's not going to win the presidency for his performance last night," David Axelrod, a senior Obama strategist, told reporters in a conference call.
The comments came on the heels of instant reaction polls from CNN and CBS that showed a greater percentage of swing voters said they were more likely to vote for Mr. Romney after the 90-minute faceoff.
Republican pollster John McLaughlin said Mr. Obama's performance reminded him of the poor showing President Reagan turned in against Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984. The difference, Mr. McLaughlin said, is that voters approved of the job Mr. Reagan was doing at the time and the economy was chugging along at a good clip.
"The difference here is that voters don't think Barack Obama is doing a good job — voters gives him a net negative on his job approval — and his lack of preparation last night may make people really think he does not know what he is doing with the economy," he said. "Plus, the majority of Americans disagree with his view of raising taxes and spending more to revive the economy."
John Zogby, who does polling for The Washington Times, predicted the debate should inject a jolt of energy into Mr. Romney's campaign.
"If Obama had been running against himself, this race would have been tighter," Mr. Zogby said. "All he was missing was a challenger. Last night he got one and this will be the horse race everyone anticipated until Romney had flagged. Romney is back."
Democratic pollsters, meanwhile, said their early polling showed Mr. Romney's well-reviewed performance was not a game-changer.
The Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group said, "President Obama reinforced his advantages on key qualities, and wavering Obama supporters (who were willing to give Romney a second look) largely were unimpressed by what Governor Romney had to say."
The research group also said that Mr. Romney gained ground among those voters on the issue of taxes but lost ground on the issue of health care.
"Many respondents came into the room equivocal about which candidate would be better on health care, but those voters split significantly in Obama's favor after hearing both candidates on the issues," the group said. "Romney lost ground when he talked about repealing ObamaCare."
Democracy Corps said their poll — conducted in partnership with Women's Voices Women Vote Action Fund — found Mr. Romney won the tax debate and improved his "personal appeal," while Mr. Obama lost an opportunity to cement his support among women.
"In the end, though, this debate did not emerge as the game-changer the Romney camp needed," the group said. "While his ballot support grew in pre- and post- debate testing, so did Obama's. Moreover, all of Romney's gains came from Republican-leaning undecided voters. He did not move a single voter away from Obama."
Daily tracking polls from Gallup and Rasmussen Reports, meanwhile, showed little movement in the race — primarily because they were done before the debate.
Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said it will take several days before the political world can get a "real reading on whether the consensus that Romney won the debate shows itself in polls."
"The assumption that Romney won is based on media types' perception of the debate, which may or may not be valid, a couple of snap polls that showed Romney doing very well, and even Democrats who conceded that Romney did well — all of which are good indications for public opinion," Mr. Brown said. "But we will not know for a while. A good poll takes a while. You need time, but nobody wants to wait."
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