Whatever metaphor you prefer, you have to remember that winning a debate is not the ultimate goal. Winning the election is.
However, in the debate in Denver, Mitt Romney was facing a mission quite different from that of his opponent. After a summer of stumbles and gaffes that concluded with a convention that fizzled, in September Romney’s campaign looked to be falling into a circling pattern indicative of a death spiral. The recent release of his telling 47 percent tape only tightened the nose-diving spiral.
In desperation, on October 3rd Romney knew he had to do something to change the momentum. He had to take a big chance with some freshly scripted lines ... perhaps pivoting-to-the-middle lines that could outrage his most strident Tea Party backers.
In contrast, Barack Obama's mission was to avoid making a big mistake by falling for a gambit.
As it played out last night, Romney obviously wanted to tie Obama up with calling out his Etch-A-Sketch lies, which would have left little time for anything else. Romney wanted to force Obama to call him a liar, or a flip-flopper. Obama was smart not to take the bait that could have made him look like a scolding negative campaigner.
Instead, Obama played the game like a guy who was way ahead on points, and would be content to let the Thursday morning quarterbacks and outraged pundits do the fact-checking and hyperventilating.
That Obama allowed his opponent to be the aggressor and perhaps breathe new life into his campaign was disappointing to many Democrats. Notably, MSNBC’s primetime roster of lefty pundits acted like they had been abruptly jilted, left alone and in tears at the alter.
If Romney wins the election, no doubt, his miracle comeback will be traced back to winning the first presidential debate. If he loses, the bad reviews of Obama's performance will rate no more than a short paragraph in the history of the Romney vs. Obama horse race across the nation's metaphorical countryside.
Satisfying all the Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow fans who expected to see Romney’s ears get pinned back was not a priority for the front-running incumbent. It's not important to the president whether cable news channels get the ratings-enhancing, nose-to-nose horse race they crave.
Obama is smart enough to know he doesn't have to say everything that ought to be said about Romney's tactics. That will become more obvious in the days ahead.
If this was a championship boxing match Obama had a comfortable lead and Romney needed an 11th- or 12th-round knockout to win. Last night was not a knock out.
So, Democrats who are worried about the sky falling should take a dose of whatever medicine they use to soothe their roiling anxiety. And, they should stand aside to let the Republicans crow and strut their premature jubilation. After all, politics-wise, it's the first good day they've had in a while.
If it was a large-stakes poker game, Obama deliberately lost a hand with a small pot, in order to set up a chump for a subsequent hand, when all the chips will be on the line.