DENVER — President Barack Obama let his his foot off Mitt Romney's neck for 90 minutes Wednesday night in the first presidential debate, giving his Republican opponent his first gasps of political oxygen in weeks.
Obama played it safe — opting to leave out most of the "zingers" he's used repeatedly on the campaign trail, steering clear of attacking Romney's tax rate, his Swiss bank accounts, or his remarks about the 47 percent.
Obama's laid-back demeanor runs counter to the harsh and ceaseless attacks his campaign began this spring and escalated again this week with a brutal video attacking Romney for outsourcing to China.
"He wasn't pulling his punches at all," David Plouffe offered after a belated entry to the spin room. "He was having a conversation with the American people."
But if Tim Pawlenty's failed presidential bid is any lesson, it can be dangerous for candidates to deliver attacks off stage that they won't back up eye to eye.
At one moment, the incumbent looked directly into the camera, explaining to voters his plain analysis that Romney's tax plan would raise the deficit by $7 trillion.
"[He's] laying out the choice and his plans," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.
But if anyone laid out anything in the debate it was Mitt Romney — who at times seemed to play the roles both of participant and moderator, determining when and how questions were answered, and repeatedly cutting off Obama.
Obama aides jumped on Romney's successful attempts to roll over moderator Jim Lehrer by launching the hashtag "#testymitt" on Twitter — hoping the exchanges would hurt Romney is his general election debate debut.
Indeed, with the campaign long predicting a Romney victory in the first debate, his performance is likely to drive renewed fire with the Democratic base that this race is now closer than it was three hours ago. And it also lowers expectations for the president before the next debate in two weeks.
"Prediction: the put ‘em to sleep, agree and kill the clock “Sandman” strategy Team [Obama] brought to this debate will be long gone next time," tweeted GOP consultant Mike Murphy.