Obama, in contrast, can seem momentarily lost as lapses into his trademark pauses in the midst of long answers, such as his explanation of what he sees as flaws in Romney's proposal for helping people with pre-existing conditions keep insurance coverage.
"He's not a Bill Clinton. Clinton was the explainer in chief at the Democratic convention, taking complex issues and explaining them so people understand," said Rita Kirk, a Southern Methodist University professor who studies campaign communications. "That doesn't seem to be Obama's particular gift. More to the point, it seemed to be Romney's gift last night."
While Romney pounded away at Obama over the nation's slow economic recovery and high unemployment, Obama didn't raise many of the criticisms he deploys against his rival in campaign speeches and advertising. No mention of Romney's remarks about "47 percent of Americans" who depend on government aid and won't take responsibility for their lives. Nor did Obama bring up women's health issues or immigration reform, or talk about Romney's wealth and use of offshore investments.
"I'm dumbfounded," said Denton, who has coached mayoral and gubernatorial candidates in debate skills. "I don't understand it from a political perspective, a debate perspective or a strategic perspective, unless it is just do no harm. Let's ride it out and play it safe."
Viewers saw that Romney was willing to take bigger risks. He may have gone too far at least once, declaring he wanted to end federal subsidies for PBS, including even Sesame Street's Big Bird.
"We learned that he wasn't concerned about Big Bird," said Mercieca. "That might be the one thing we remember about this debate."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.