Updated at midnight EDT
For all the anticipation of the first presidential debate, the lasting impressions may be few.
Republican Mitt Romney scored with a forceful debating stance, but left the stage without a memorable line.
President Barack Obama reeled out a painful line of attack, yet maintained a reserved, perhaps too-cool tone.
Pressing Romney for the lack of details in his tax proposals and plans for replacing Dodd-Frank financial regulation and “Obama-care,” the president delivered what had the sound of a practiced, yet effective, line:
“At some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good? Is it — is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?”
This also came well into a 90-minute debate at the University of Denver that opened with an aggressive Republican nominee and a somewhat nervous-sounding president — and for those who tuned out after a half-hour there was little more memorable than that.
This is supposed to be the economy election, the contest in which 43 months of unemployment over 8 percent will weigh heavily on the Nov. 6 vote. Romney mouthed the word “jobs” 23 times in debate, Obama 14 times.
“I like PBS,” Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer of the Public Broadcasting Service as he spoke of cutting government spending for public television. “I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too.”
The president missed an opportunity to hold Romney to account for his recently reported fundraising comment about 47 percent of Americans paying no taxes and becoming “victims” of government dependency.
Instead, it was Romney who attempted to capitalize on Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign-trail remark that the middle class has been “buried” the last four years.
“The people who are having the hard time right now are middle-income Americans,” Romney said. “Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They’re just being crushed.”
Yet he failed to say that it was the president’s own running mate who had said so.
The initial take on the debate, from a quick CNN poll of registered voters who watched the debate:
67 percent said Romney won, and 25 percent said Obama won.
By a two-to-one margin, uncommitted voters called Romney the winner in a CBS News poll of 500 people after the debate: 46 percent gave it to Romney, 22 percent Obama. Also, 56 percent of those surveyed said they viewed Romney in a better light after the debate. Eleven percent said their opinion of him dropped, and 32 percent reported no change.
What the polls say in the days ahead will say more about lasting impressions.
Missed opportunities, tougher body language by a hungry rival, self-restraint by a cautious incumbent and dearth of memorable remarks make for an encounter that may not be long remembered as the campaign carries on — two weeks until another presidential debate.