PRE-DEBATE low-balling of expectations offered on behalf of President Obama and Mitt Romney turned out to be largely more truth than spin — at least in the case of President Obama.

For although the first of three Obama vs. Romney encounters fell somewhat short of elegance, enlightenment or even entertainment, Romney clearly was the beneficiary of Wednesday's debate in Denver.

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Both candidates showed up in made-for-TV uniforms: dark suits, white shirts, lapel flag pins and (Obama) blue tie, (Romney) red tie.

But there was nothing uniform about the debate. It rambled and rolled like an old truck that lost its brakes on a country road to nowhere.

It offered little that was new. And if there were any of the touted, rehearsed "zingers" from Romney, they were lost in the bumper-car noise of 90 minutes of wonkishness on the economy, health care and taxes.

But Romney was more aggressive, often speaking directly to the president. He looked and sounded confident. He seemed comfortable and relaxed.

Obama not so much; at some points he looked listless.

I understand that Romney got a boost just by being able to offer an extended, unfiltered message to a huge bloc of voters - an expected audience estimated at 60 million - and just by going one-on-one with the president.

But even on little things, Mitt had an edge. He kept smiling while Obama spoke. Obama's expression as Romney spoke was more like a smirk. Importantly, Romney came across as more energetic and engaged. Overall, and at key points during the debate, Obama was tentative.

Take for example Romney going at the president on the state of the economy:

"Look at the evidence of the last four years. It's absolutely extraordinary," Romney said. "We've got 23 million people out of work or stopped looking for work . . . economic growth this year slower than last year, and last year slower than the year before."

Now look at the president going after Romney's tax plan:

"If you believe that we can cut taxes by $5 trillion and add $2 trillion in additional spending that the military is not asking for . . . and you think that by closing loopholes and deductions for the well-to-do, somehow you will not end up picking up the tab, then Gov. Romney's plan may work for you," Obama said.

May work for you? Hardly a killer line.

As expected, the pair dueled over health care, Medicare and job creation. And the president pointed to a lack of details in Romney's plans, asking at one point whether such details are kept secret "because they're too good."

But the night belonged to Romney.

I'm not sure whether the result will be as Gov. Chris Christie predicted when he broke ranks with the Romney camp and said the debate would turn the race around.

But I wouldn't be surprised to see numbers move. And I wouldn't be surprised to see a new approach, tone and attitude from Obama next time around.

Oh, and as proof that both campaigns know that much of what they push has little to do with leading the country, I hope you noticed what wasn't said:

Nothing from Romney to Obama about "you didn't build that."

Nothing from Obama about Romney's tax returns.

Nothing from Romney to Obama about allegedly ending welfare-to-work.

And nothing from Obama to Romney for not caring about "47 percent" of America.

I guess we should be grateful, though. Obama never mentioned "change you can believe in." And Romney at no point said, "I'll bet you $10,000."

They meet again Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

For more fun, however, don't miss Joe Biden and Paul Ryan when they go head-to-head Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.

Order your bourbon now.

Contact John Baer at For his recent columns, go to Read his blog at