Even so, a status quo result, or something close, would not hurt him nearly as much as it would Romney.
By the end of a long night, the president tried to bring his agenda items back to the prideful auto workers, to the mom who went back to school.
"All those things are designed to make sure that the American people, their genius, their grit, their determination, is channeled, and they have an opportunity to succeed," Obama said.
Romney's calculus was different.
He needed a commanding performance. He needed people to see him as a president, unflinching next to the guy who currently has the job.
In 10 battleground states, none of the nonpartisan polling since before the recent Democratic and Republican conventions has found Romney holding a lead.
Romney's mission was to come across as having a better and clearer economic revival plan than Obama; to undermine the president's standing, particularly on the economy, without being petulant; to get people thinking that four more years of Obama would make their lives worse; to score that one memorable moment.
"Mr. President, you're entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts," Romney said during one of the flare-ups, this on one education.
Romney clearly had his lines ready. Two more debates await.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples and Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this analysis.
EDITOR'S NOTE — AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Follow Ben Feller on Twitter at www.twitter.com/benfellerdc
An AP News Analysis
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