Obama’s criticisms of Romney simply don’t work with Romney standing there. They’re essentially attacks on a straw man, and when the straw man can actually respond, he has to modify them in an apologetic way or get slapped down. Romney probably went too far in the opposite direction by not attacking the president more strongly on education, on the fiscal cliff, on the damaging role of public sector unions, on Obama’s ignoring the president’s overriding of constitutional limits.
Obama was foolishly tempted to respond snidely in his penultimate answer. That was a big mistake at the close of an apparently good-humored debate. By and large, Romney was a little better at attacking without seeming nasty.
No one collapsed in this debate, but Romney seemed more knowledgeable, crisper, and, in a phrase, more presidential. I’m tempted to quote Churchill after El Alamein: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.”