What's next: Can Obama Recover or Will Romney Run up the Score?
WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's solid debate performance Wednesday night gives him the type of energy and momentum that President Barack Obama now will have to work overtime to undo.
"The thing that this debate did is it gave people reasons to think about (a) President Romney," said John Geer, chairman of Vanderbilt University's political science department. "This often happens with challengers in the first debate. Now Obama needs to reconnect with the American public and (make the case of) why he should be re-elected."
According to a CNN/ORC International survey conducted immediately after the debate, 67% of registered voters who watched the debate said that the Republican nominee won, with one in four saying that President Barack Obama was victorious. Before the debate, however, another CNN/ORC national poll of likely voters showed that 56% felt Obama would win.
What a difference a night makes.
But poor initial debate performances rarely shift the tide of an election, experts say.
"Obama can afford to lose this one," said Melissa Wade, a debate professor at Emory University in Atlanta. Historically, losing the first debate has the least impact on an incumbent president, she said.
According to an analysis by Gallup, televised debates have affected the outcome of only two elections in the past half century -- Nixon-Kennedy in 1960 and Bush-Gore in 2000.
Still, the stakes for Romney to pull off a good performance were high and, according to post-debate polls and commentators, he dominated the president.
"Romney has a message and he was finally able to deliver it. He stopped playing small ball," Geer said. "Romney gets to play offense for a while. He can stress the message 'we can't afford another four years of this.' Talk about how (he's) going to get command of the economy. He has facts. The guy is smart."
Obama now faces the task of recovering from his debate stumble.
"He was terrible last night and I don't understand why," Geer said. "Obama didn't seem like he wanted to be there. He needs to be much more aggressive. He let Romney get away with stuff he shouldn't have."
Obama must work to slow Romney's traction.
"Romney gains a little bit of momentum. The big question in this is whether or not he can sustain it," said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory. "At this stage in the game, with this race being as close as it is, you don't want to make unforced errors. Obama made unforced errors. That can't happen again."
Inside the campaign, there already appears to be activity around retooling its approach.
"Obviously, moving forward we will take hard look at this and make judgments where to draw lines in debates and how to use our time," said senior Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod Thursday in a conference call with reporters, adding that Obama is "eager" for the next debate.
Obama and Romney returned Thursday to the campaign trail in battleground states. Obama wasted no time going back on the attack, accusing Romney of dishonesty over tax policy and other issues.
"If you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth," Obama said during a campaign stop in Denver.
Romney's supporters, meanwhile, crowed about his performance, saying it reshaped a race that the former Massachusetts governor had appeared in danger of losing.
"He did exactly what he had to do for the undecided voter in Ohio or around the country," said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who played the role of Obama in debate rehearsals for Romney.
Campaign experts say the turnaround comes not a moment too soon.
The Romney campaign spent much of September trying to recover from a series of gaffes ranging from his assertion that 47% of people were entitlement-dependent supporters of Obama to his politically-charged response to the violent attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya.
"Romney did a good job of redeeming himself of all the gaffes of September. He gave a clear case of why he didn't think Obama deserved a second term," Gillespie said.
But, with just a few weeks before the general election, Romney has to do a lot more than say Obama doesn't deserve a second chance, she said.
"You have to convince voters your vision is better," she said. "It has to be consistent from here on out, or last night's performance was an anomaly."
Democrats tried to downplay the impact of Romney's debate win.
"I think that Governor Romney is certainly a skilled debater. And last night he was able to elevate his level of performance. But he did not change the fundamental dynamics of this race, nor did he change some of the policies that actually got us into the economic mess that we have," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a top surrogate for Obama, told CNN.
Both candidates have their work cut out for them heading into the next presidential debate October 16 in New York at Hofstra University. The town hall format is one that could easily trip both candidates, debate experts say.
In town halls, Obama tends to sound too professorial and Romney runs the risk of coming off as stiff, Wade said. The unpredictable nature of the questions also sometimes throws candidates, she said.
"The danger of the town hall is that you're getting them from the audience," Wade said. "The way the questions are asked are not the way they are in practiced debates because these are from people not policy experts."
-- CNN's Tom Cohen, Dana Davidsen and Paul Steinhauser contributed