While Romney's workman-like performance may have lacked one single big moment, there were a lot of reasons he came out ahead.
Below, we expound upon six of them:
1. He controlled the format: For better or worse, moderator Jim Lehrer largely let the candidates sort out the debate themselves, essentially broaching broad topics and letting the candidates duke it out on their own terms -- with almost-endless rebuttals. This format favored Romney. Romney's campaign went into the debate with an attack mindset (as most candidates who are behind do), and by allowing all those rebuttals, Lehrer gave Romney a chance to execute. He did. Obama wasn't as focused on attacking, which works less well when there is so much back-and-forth.
WATCH: The first presidential debate in two minutes
2. Obama seemed frazzled: He didn't have an Al-Gore-sighs moment, but Obama was clearly not having a good time on stage. His head was down when Romney was talking, his responses were halting at times, he often nodded (as if showing approval) or smirked when Romney was talking, and he even conceded some points to Romney on issues like deficit reduction and not being a "perfect" president. None of these were by themselves huge moments (as Gore's sigh was), but the totality suggested a candidate who wasn't terribly comfortable. And he wasn't.
3. The politics of preemption: Romney knew going into the debate that he was going to be attacked for raising taxes on the middle class (according to an oft-cited study) and favoring the wealthy, so what he did was preemptively assure that he would not raise taxes on the middle class, repeating that over and over again and suggesting that it's Obama who would raise taxes on the middle class. He also made a point to emphasize the poor (think: "I'm not concerned about the very poor"). By setting the terms of the tax cut debate, Romney offset the gains that Obama might have been able to make on a class issue that polls suggest the president is winning.
4. Obama didn't get his big talking points in: If you would have told us before the debate that Obama would mention the auto bailout and Osama bin Laden only once and wouldn't mention Bain Capital or Romney's "47 percent" comments at all, we would have told you you were crazy. Yet that's exactly what happened. Obama seemed predisposed with not engaging too much with Romney, but the debate was all about engaging with one another, and Obama didn't even register the biggest hits on Romney.
5. The expectations were low: There's a reason the campaigns spend so much time lowering expectations for the debate; expectations matter. And polls showed that, going into the debate, the American public, by a large margin, expected Obama to win. With the bar relatively low for Romney, it was that much easier to clear. That's not to say Romney didn't have a good debate. He did. But candidates will always be graded on a curve, and Romney beat the curve.
6. Romney avoided a stumble: Romney's campaign has been colored by the occasional gaffe which shows the candidate to be out of touch or just plain awkward. There were a couple iffy moments on that count (Big Bird, anyone?), but the GOP nominee's performance was largely gaffe-free. Without a "47 percent" or "I'm not concerned about the very poor" moment, Romney allowed for the post-debate analysis to focus on other things, which is what he needs.
Romney's growing Latino problem: Two new polls released Wednesday showed Obama taking at least 70 percent of the Latino vote -- reinforcing a troubling trend line for Republicans.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll showed Obama ahead of Romney 70 percent to 26 percent, while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed him ahead 71 percent to 21 percent. Either result would be a disaster for the GOP.
Even as Latinos have fallen out of love with Obama, they have completely stuck by him. If they do vote 70 percent for the incumbent, it will top even their 2008 level of support for the president (67 percent).
Romney will deliver a major foreign policy speech in Virginia next week.
Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Mo.) Senate campaign isn't backing off its candidate's 2008 claim that some doctors perform abortions on women who aren't pregnant.
A private poll conducted by Mass Insight shows Elizabeth Warren (D) at 48 percent and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) at 44 percent.
A new ad from national Democrats hits Senate candidate Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on women's issues.
An automated Democratic poll from Public Policy Polling shows Democrat Richard Carmona at 45 percent and Flake at 43 percent.
New polls conducted by the University of New Hampshire show the state's two congressmen -- Republicans Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass -- trailing by nine and in a virtual tie, respectively.
"Blue State or Red? Look at the Fingers" -- Celia McGee, New York Times
"Sen. Brown faults work Warren did for Dow Chemical" -- Steve LeBlanc, AP
"Tester and Rehberg Fight Over Outsider Label in Montana" -- Jack Healy, New York Times
"Welcome to Akin-land" -- David Weigel, Slate