DENVER—Republicans came away from Wednesday night's presidential debate crowing about the masterful performance put on by their candidate, Mitt Romney, while Democrats insisted it was President Obama who came out on top. But beneath the spin, several themes emerged from surrogates on either side of the political spectrum.
"It was a terrific night for Mitt Romney," said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who served as Romney's faux sparring partner ahead of the first head-to-head match-up, during a post-debate media scrum.
"He did what he had to do for the undecided voter in Ohio and the country they were looking for two things: to have a discussion about the record of the last four years and why we can't afford it for the next four," he said. "And most importantly, he talked about his own policies."
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, was full of praise for Romney as well, but couldn't help taking a dig at Obama, who many campaign observers found halting and low energy throughout the 90-minute debate.
"It was an unbelievably bad performance by this president," Priebus said. "I don't know if he left his heart in Washington or where he left it, but he didn't bring it here to Denver, that's for sure."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a top Romney surrogate, praised Romney's aggressive but substantive tone.
"[Obama] says things about Mitt Romney's ideas that just aren't true," Rubio said. "You can get away with that in a 30-second commercial, you might be able to get away with that in an interview somewhere, but you're not going to be able to get away with that in a debate like this where you are standing next to Mitt Romney who is there not just to refute what you say but to prove how wrong you truly are."
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a rising Republican star, said Romney was also able to accomplish a pair of other important goals: connect to middle-class voters, particularly women.
"He talked about people he met on the campaign trail, personal stories, which shows he is listening to the American people," she said. "Women care about these economic issues. Mothers, we're so worried about what we are passing on to the next generation, the debt. Governor Romney came out and called it what it is right now: immoral."
Not surprisingly, Obama campaign officials carried a counter message: that their candidate did a better job of speaking directly to the American people about the different visions of the two candidates.
"The Romney campaign made no secret that they wanted to deliver some attack lines and zingers coming into this evening. They did that," said Jen Psaki, an Obama campaign spokeswoman. "The president has made no secret of the fact that he wanted to speak directly to the American people and when he looked at the camera and spoke about social security and protecting it, when he spoke about the absence of details, when he spoke about the difference between their plans for the economy, that's what he was doing."
Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, stuck to the same message.
"I'm happy with any debate where people walk away understanding the clear differences between us and Governor Romney and that's what we did," he said. "Governor Romney played defense on Medicare, on tax cuts. These are things that are really problematic for him in the battleground states."
Outlining contrasting visions of for America's future was also a top goal for the Romney campaign.
Peter Flaherty, a top Romney campaign official, said Romney's goal was to make the point that the election is "not about the two men on stage or the two parties, but about two different directions for the future."
"If we wanted one broad thing to come out of tonight for the governor to be able to communicate, I think that was it," he said.
David Axelrod, a top Obama campaign official, said he was unsurprised by Romney's strong approach.
"What you saw tonight is what you saw during the primaries, which is that Governor Romney is a very eager and willing candidate on the attack," he said. "That's why his closing statement was nothing but unalloyed carpet bombing with no real vision for the future, and ultimately, I don't think that's how you get elected."