President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney return to the campaign trail in battleground states on Thursday after going toe-to-toe on dominant campaign issues of taxes, healthcare and the economy in a debate that analysts and a snap poll agreed the Republican challenger won.
In exchanges full of policy proposals, facts and figures, Romney was more aggressive in the 90-minute encounter on Wednesday night at the University of Denver, the first of three debates ahead of the November election.
The post-debate verdict swung clearly to Romney.
"A week ago, people were saying this was over. We've got a horse race," said CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen, who called the debate Romney's best so far after the 22 the former Massachusetts governor took part in during the GOP primary campaign.
Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist and CNN contributor, expressed surprise at Romney's strong performance, saying he "rose to the moment" and seemed to benefit from the multiple primary debates.
"It looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there," noted Democratic strategist and CNN contributor James Carville. "The president didn't bring his 'A' game."
The CNN/ORC International poll of 430 people who watched the debate showed 67% thought Romney won, compared to 25% for Obama.
Obama remains in Colorado for his first post-debate appearance before heading to Wisconsin. Romney joins running mate Rep. Paul Ryan at a rally in Virginia. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden will speak at an Iowa campaign event.
The next presidential debate is October 16 in New York, and the third takes place on October 22 in Florida. Biden and Ryan will debate on October 11 in Kentucky.
On Wednesday, neither presidential candidate scored dramatic blows that will make future highlight reels, and neither veered from campaign themes and policies to date.
But Romney came off as the more energized candidate overall by repeatedly attacking Obama on red-meat issues for Republicans such as health care reform and higher taxes, while the president began with lengthy explanations and only later focused more on what his opponent was saying.
Moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS had trouble keeping the duo within time limits for responses, especially Obama, who ended up speaking four minutes longer than Romney.
Romney's strongest moments came in emphasizing his frequent criticism of Obama's record, saying the nation's high unemployment and sluggish economic recovery showed the president's policies haven't worked.
"There's no question in my mind if the president is re-elected, you'll continue to see a middle-class squeeze," Romney said, adding that another term for Obama also will mean the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, "will be fully installed."
At another point, he noted how $90 billion spent on programs and policies to develop alternative energy sources could have been devoted to hiring teachers or other needs that would bring down unemployment.
Obama argued that his policies were working to bring America back from the financial and economic crisis he inherited, and that Romney refused to divulge specifics about his proposed tax plans and replacements for the health care law and Wall Street reform that the Republican has pledged to repeal.
"At some point, the American people have to ask themselves if the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret is because they're too good," Obama said, adding the answer was "no" and that the lack of details reflected the difficulty in making touch decisions.
In particular, Obama said Romney's plan of tax cuts for the rich had failed before and would fail again now.