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Opinion: After the debate debacle for Obama, we’ll find out if we have a race

YES, it was as bad as it seemed.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama laugh after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday.APRepublican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama laugh after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday.APNo, it wasn’t Jim Lehrer’s fault for letting Romney expound; Obama got more time (four minutes more) than Romney. Besides, it’s not the moderator’s job to call a debater out on questionable assertions. It’s the opponent’s job.

Yes, it wasn’t the best atmospherics for Obama to look down, purse his lips, appear distracted, while Romney was attentive, engaged, relaxed. But this was much more than atmospherics. This was about one candidate who came with a frame for the evening, and who was prepared to engage on every question; and another who, perhaps because of his documented faith in his own abilities, felt he could wing it with snatches of familiar verbiage.

Most surprising, the whole evening felt as if Obama thought he was back in 2008, needing only to demonstrate a sense of cool, calm collectedness to persuade the voters that they could do what they desperately wanted to do: change course.

There was barely a moment when Obama offered any sense that he was prepared to challenge Romney on his weakest point: who does the Republican presidential nominee speak for? How much (or little) does he understand where the country is, how it got here?

Even on the most basic political points, Obama seemed clueless. When you argue as a Democrat that you and your Republican opponent share wide areas of agreement on Social Security — especially when recipients make up a chunk of Romney’s “47 percent” of indolent spongers — you have thrown in a fistful of high cards.

What remains is one key question that the next 48 to 72 hours will answer: Did this debate change the minds of significant numbers of voters? Assuming that the flash polls are right — that most viewers thought Romney won the debate — did they regard that as a loss for “their” team, or did it persuade some of them to change their minds about whom they are supporting,

One of the enduring myths of campaign analysis is that you can actually count the number of “undecided” voters by asking voters if they are undecided or not. Sometimes, significant numbers of voters actually change their minds. That’s how Reagan turned a small lead into a landslide in 1980. It’s how Gore won the popular vote in 2000, and how Kerry got back into the race in 2004.

If this debate — as one-sided as any I have ever seen — does not change the landscape, if Obama retains a small but measurable lead, it means that the election is more or less over (barring some overwhelmingly consequential event), that voters have decided they are going to stick with the president. That is thin gruel on which the Obama campaign must dine for the next few days; but after this debacle, it’s the only sustenance on the menu.

Jeff Greenfield is a Yahoo! News columnist and the host of “Need to Know” on PBS. A five-time Emmy winner, he has spent more than 30 years on network television, including time as the senior political correspondent for CBS News, the senior analyst for CNN, and the political and media analyst for ABC News. His most recent book is “Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics.”