Following the Democratic National Convention last month, the Obama campaign felt it was on a roll. So confident was the President that on the Saturday night after his Charlotte acceptance speech, he did something extremely rare: he talked to the thirty or so members of the traveling press that follow him everywhere. That evening in Florida, he made a surprise appearance at an off-the-record drinking session with media and campaign staff. The late night charm outreach at the Orlando hotel bar was a clearly tactical move to get the press on his side during the final stretch. But it was also an indication about just how confident Obama felt — and how confident his team was in him.

“They wouldn’t have brought him out unless he was feeling really good,” one journalist who attended the event would say later…

The day after the debate, according to multiple campaign sources, the campaign was “overtired” and “rattled.” It was clear to even the most hardened veterans that it was one of the worst moments for Team Obama, the first full blown crisis.

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Seriously: has that kind of swing ever happened this late in a campaign? Has any candidate lost 18 points among women voters in one night ever? And we are told that when Obama left the stage that night, he was feeling good. That’s terrifying. On every single issue, Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion…

Look: I’m trying to rally some morale, but I’ve never seen a candidate this late in the game, so far ahead, just throw in the towel in the way Obama did last week – throw away almost every single advantage he had with voters and manage to enable his opponent to seem as if he cares about the middle class as much as Obama does. How do you erase that imprinted first image from public consciousness: a president incapable of making a single argument or even a halfway decent closing statement?…

I’m trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover.

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On the other hand, a continued series of events like last week’s debate really might change the narrative of the race. And here is the bad news for Democrats: Their best shot has already come and gone. The debates will anchor the campaign narrative from here on out, and the three debates that follow all offer less favorable terrain for them to press their case…

The next debate is a town-hall meeting. Obama’s campaign is talking up its plan to roll out a new, tougher Obama who will challenge Romney’s slick evasions. But a town-hall meeting is a whole different animal. In a one-on-one debate, you can fillet your opponent. A town-hall meeting consists of undecided voters pressing the candidates for answers. The focus of the event is on answering the questions of the voters. Using their questions to assail your opponent is bad form — indeed, the Regular Voters who ask the questions, and serve as proxies for the public, can be counted on to implore the candidates to stop attacking each other so much. Romney will use the town hall to proclaim his deep and abiding concern for all of America, and Obama will have little chance to disprove it.

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And that really points to what must be the deepest reason for the Democrats’ strange response to the debate. The president can’t run on his record, and he isn’t proposing a second term agenda. All he has to run on is the caricature of Mitt Romney that his campaign, his surrogates, and liberal opinion makers in the press have been fashioning for a year. Their goal has been to prevent the election from becoming a referendum on the incumbent, which the Romney campaign had clearly hoped it could be, and to make it not even a choice election but a referendum on the challenger. Obama seemed to have a remarkable degree of success with this approach, but the debate represented Romney’s response: Rather than continue to insist that the election should simply be a referendum on Obama, Romney effectively presented a case for seeing it as a choice between two agendas, and presented his own proposals and vision in his own terms. The Obama campaign had been able to paint Romney in scary colors for months because Romney had declined to describe himself and his agenda much. Now that he’s finally running for president, the Democrats have a problem.

But if that’s their predicament, then surely their panicked response of the last few days is only making things worse. They can’t really expect people to treat them as a trusted source about Romney’s agenda and ignore Romney himself. But if they’ve lost control of the Romney story—even if they merely fight it to a draw—they don’t have much of a case to make for themselves. The public is unhappy with the economy and the direction of the country, and Obama is not proposing to do anything differently if he is given another four years.

So what do they do next? Continue to insist that Romney’s agenda is what they say it is and not what Romney himself is plainly promising voters? Try more aggressive personal attacks against Romney? Defend the Obama record? Not exactly a wealth of great options.

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But perhaps it should be looked at in a different way: Obama did not lose so much as Romney won. A highly skilled, albeit vastly underrated, candidate showed what he was really made of on Thursday…

He won the GOP nomination relatively early (considering how frontloading the primaries was scaled back this cycle) and bloodlessly. Sure, it was messy at times, but he clearly has united the Republican party around him. Many of his once-staunchest opponents in the party – both high profile commentators and grassroots voters alike – are now counted among his strongest allies.

He did so without having to adopt political opinions that alienated him from the middle of the electorate, or his base. In fact, his voting coalition was the center of the GOP electorate – not too far to the left, nor too far to the right…

Put aside the [media’s] notion that Romney is a hopelessly weak candidate and we can see that, in fact, he has a lot of strengths. I would argue that he is the most articulate and passionate Republican nominee since at least Ronald Reagan, and perhaps even more so than the Gipper.

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Hannity noted that they’re “desperate” and panicked. Cadell agreed, pointing to poll numbers shifting in Romney’s favor. It’s the biggest debate victory since 1980, he said. And the Romney campaign should’ve used ads to tout that victory.

“The election is not over,” he said, noting that Obama has not yet been defeated. Coulter disagreed. Romney is going to win, she said, and partly because that was the most-watched debate since 1980, and “that was the first time in the last 100 years Republicans took out an incumbent.”

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Click the image to watch.

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