Mitt Romney dominated almost from the start of the first presidential debate tonight, and he never looked back.

A key early point was when Romney repeatedly and forcefully rebutted President Obama’s persistent effort to mischaracterize his tax plan as a massive tax cut for the rich. He went on to explain why America needed lower tax rates. And in the process, he showed flashes of good humor, telling moderator Jim Lehrer he would even cut subsidies to PBS.

Romney plainly had prepared well for the debate, moving quickly to correct the president’s misstatements on energy and hitting him again and again on the last four years. He jabbed at Obama for wanting to raise taxes when the president had agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts in 2010, a time when the economy was much stronger.

There was also a noticeable difference in demeanor between the two candidates. Romney was relaxed and good-humored. He frequently wove into his answers stories of people he had met on the campaign trail. Obama, meanwhile, looked alternately annoyed and lost. He seemed flat. He grimaced and huffed when Romney spoke, coming dangerously close to Al Gore-parody territory. At times he veered into complaints about the nation’s education system and tax code, as if he hadn’t been president for the last four years. (The Republican National Committee pounced on his peevish expressions and refusal to look Romney in the eye.)

Romney seemed better versed in existing law and polices than did the president. At one point in rebutting Obama’s remarks on tax breaks for exporting jobs, he replied simply, “I’ve been in business 25 years; I have no idea what you're talking about.”

When it got to entitlement reform, Obama threw up his hands on Social Security, saying there wasn’t much difference between the two men’s position. It was an extraordinary concession on an issue that Democrats have dominated for years.

On Medicare, Romney hit the president on taking $716 billion out of the program. He then calmly explained how a premium support plan for younger Americans would works, even bringing up Bill Clinton’s chief of staff Erskine Bowles as the originator of the idea.

Romney effectively skewered excess regulations, calling Dodd-Frank the “biggest kiss” to big banks he’s ever seen. The president strained to respond, accusing Romney of wanting to get rid of all regulations. Romney hit back, telling him the measure was killing small banks and designating the big banks as too big to fail. He got into the weeds, going after Dodd-Frank for making mortgages harder to get.

When the conversation got to Obamacare, Romney ticked through the reasons to get rid of it, including its impact on job creation and the Independent Payment Advisory Board. He scolded Obama for working on Obamacare for two years, rather than focusing on jobs. Bizarrely, the president pointed to Romneycare in defense of Obamacare. Romney blew him back by saying his plan didn’t cut Medicare, didn’t put a board in place to cut care and didn’t raise taxes or force people to drop their current coverage. He stressed that his was a bipartisan effort. It was a stunningly effective performance.

Oddly, Obama defended the IPAB, saying it was a fine idea because it was made up of experts. Huh? Romney went back to skewer him on that point (“15 people telling us what kind of care” we can have) and spoke passionately about private-sector innovation. Obama looked extremely annoyed, stumbling when trying to mischaracterize Romney’s plan. He began to flail, complaining about Romney’s tax and regulatory plans.

Toward the end, Romney got lofty, citing the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and giving a subtle nod to religious voters (on “life” and “religious freedom”). It all helped cement an impression that he was more presidential than the actual president. He exuded compassion, saying that “pursuit of happiness” entailed taking care of others who are less well off.

Romney plainly was pitching to independents. On education, he managed to weave in Solyndra, telling Obama that the $90 billion on “green jobs” could have hired 2 million teachers. He also made an impassioned plea for leadership.

Again in the closing statements, Obama seemed to stumble and ramble, pleading that if reelected he’d “fight|” for Americans — a sharp contrast to Romney’s silky smooth pitch on the candidates’ different visions.

Moderator Jim Lehrer was essentially run over by the candidates, barely getting to suggest topics. However, it was a relief to have an unobtrusive moderator. The candidates could freely range back and forth on topics, and the conversation was substantive.

Winner: Mitt Romney.

Losers: President Obama, pundits who had already called the race for Obama and the Obama staffers who will have to explain to the president that he bombed.