Mitt Romney leads President Obama in national polls, and the president is approaching his all-time low in the RealClearPolitics average. Romney leads in some key swing states (e.g., Florida, Colorado and North Carolina) and has largely erased the deficit in others (Ohio, Virginia, Nevada). His approval rating (the likability rating so many liberals have obsessed about) is in positive territory; the gap between the two candidates’ approval ratings has all but disappeared.

Obama is below 60 on Intrade. Crowds for Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are swelling in battleground states like Ohio. The Associated Press reported:

The crowds tell the story. As Election Day nears, Mitt Romney is drawing large and excited throngs. Look to dusty Iowa cornfields, rain-soaked Virginia parks, the muddy fields of the Shelby County Fairgrounds, where a crowd of 9,500 — almost half of this western Ohio town — gathered among the barns and stables on a frigid October evening this week to glimpse the Republican presidential contender. . . . He drew an estimated 12,000 people to a central Florida rally last weekend, 1,200 to an Iowa town of just 1,000, and several hundred more to Newport News, Va., under heavy October rain.

“People wonder why it is I’m so confident we’re going to win. I’m confident because I see you here on a day like this. This is unbelievable,” Romney said, his wet hair stuck to the side of his face. Soaked supporters standing in muddy puddles cheered as he delivered an abridged version of his standard campaign speech. Some wore ponchos, while many others stood shivering and drenched, hands in pockets.

This is all the more remarkable since Romney was never the favorite of the right-wing base.

The New York Times grudgingly concedes that Romney continues to surge. His “bounce” from the Oct. 3 debate hasn’t faded. His state polling in swing states has followed his national surge.

All of this suggests that the presidential race changed in some fundamental way after the first debate. It can certainly change again, but it is silly to deny that the first debate has been more significant than any one event in the 2012 election.

What happened? For one thing the debate exposed what many Republicans suspected, namely that some of Obama’s support was shallow, rooted in habit or from failure to consider Romney might be a viable alternative. Even in the heady days after the Democratic National Convention Obama did not reach more than 50 percent in the RCP averages or even in any week of Gallup tracking polls.

Recall that virtually the entire Obama strategy was aimed to discredit and delegitimize Romney as a candidate. The avalanche of negative ads in the summer, however, failed (barely) to do so. With Romney’s extraordinary debate performance, it now becomes nearly impossible to vilify him. Unfortunately for Obama he’s got no Plan B. He never devised an impressive second-term agenda. He has either unpopular (Obamacare) or unhelpful (raise taxes) or small beans (hire 100,000 teachers) proposals. Romney has therefore been able to deploy his “we can’t afford four more years” argument quite effectively.

And finally, as many of us suspected, foreign policy has become a front-burner issue. The attack on the Benghazi Consulate has now resonated with mainstream media and has become a story about competence and credibility. This may not have contributed to Romney’s rise, but it will assist him in holding off Obama.

For this, Romney owes a debt of gratitude to Vice President Biden, who elevated the issue in the debate through blatant misstatements. And in pointing the finger at the intelligence community, Biden risks a backlash in the form of leaks and testimony from those who aren’t going to take the fall for politicians. James Risen of the New York Times picks up on just one story line that just weeks ago hadn’t garnered much attention, as he writes:

The large private security firms that have protected American diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan sought State Department contracts in Libya, and at least one made a personal pitch to the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the militants’ attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, according to a senior official at one firm.

But given the Libyan edict banning the contractors, the Obama administration was eager to reduce the American footprint there. After initially soliciting bids from major security companies for work in Libya, State Department officials never followed through.

“We went in to make a pitch, and nothing happened,” said the security firm official. He said the State Department could have found a way around the Libyans’ objections if it had wanted to.

Be prepared to see the drip-drip-drip of more revelations as whistleblowers get in line to tell their side of the story.

Romney has not won this race yet. A rotten debate performance could reset the race once more. Obama and his Chicago political hacks may have an October surprise or two up their collective sleeves. But now time and momentum are on Romney’s side. He appears to a plurality of voters to be not just an alternative to Obama but a good one. Unless that changes and changes fast (remember early voting is ongoing), Romney will win.