The first debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney took place last night. One of the big storylines coming out of it was, surprisingly, the performance of moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS. As the Associated Press reported:

The veteran PBS anchor drew caustic social media reviews for his performance on Wednesday, with critics saying he failed to keep control of the campaign’s first direct exchange between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. The candidates talked over Lehrer’s attempts to keep them to time limitations, and his open-ended questions frequently lacked sharpness.

The tough assessments crossed party lines: Republican commentator Laura Ingraham wrote on Twitter that Lehrer seemed “a bit overwhelmed.” Comic and Democratic activist Bill Maher bluntly tweeted that “Lehrer sucked.”

But Erik Wemple offered a spirited defense of the debate and Lehrer’s role in moderating it:

There’s no argument here that Lehrer kept the polemics confined to the rules that he outlined at the beginning of the clash, whatever they were. Nor is there any argument here that the candidates didn’t ignore his ever-so-polite quasi-interruptions to inform them that their time was up.

Yet the debate was excellent — free-flowing, multitopical, informative and civil. Maybe a little too civil. Credit for those distinctions may well rest with the candidates, who’d obviously been drilling and drilling far more than they’d acknowledged in their expectations-lowering public statements prior to the Denver showdown.

Lehrer, though, deserves a nod as well. He moderated the thing, after all. Much of the vitriol headed his way grinds at his inability to enforce time limits, which are arbitrary and dumb anyhow.

Regardless of what one thought of Lehrer’s performance, it certainly facilitated a favorable environment for Mitt Romney. As Aaron Blake explains:

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.

More from PostPolitics:

Quickly sort through the best analysis, commentary and news out of last night's debate through The Grid

Read all the words the President’s spoke with a full transcript from last night.

And then check their statements with the help of the Washington Post FactChecker.