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Presidential debate: Mitt Romney injects new life in his campaign (+video)

With the obits of his campaign all but written, Mitt Romney defies expectations and turns in a lifetime performance in the first presidential debate with rival Barack Obama. Suddenly, it's a new race.

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Romney’s approach “will not grow our economy because the only way to pay for it without either burdening the middle class or blowing up our deficit is to make drastic cuts in things like education,” Obama said.

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Romney fought back hard, beating back moderator Jim Lehrer’s attempts to enforce the debate schedule’s time limits.  He accused Obama of planning to raise taxes on “successful small businesses from 35 percent to 40 percent” at a cost of 700,000 jobs.

“I don’t want to cost jobs,” he said. “My priority is jobs.”

Not only were Republicans thrilled with Romney’s performance – likening it to his take-down of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a critical point in the Republican primaries – Democrats not affiliated with Obama’s campaign were tough on the president. Many observers opined that Obama didn’t seem all that eager to be on the debate stage Wednesday night.

“I think he was off his game tonight,” said James Carville, the mastermind of President Clinton’s first election in 1992, on CNN after the debate.

Democrats were stunned that Obama made no reference to the damaging videotape of Romney at a private fundraiser dismissing the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax, or to Romney’s record at Bain Capital, including layoffs.

But no one is counting Obama out. There are nearly five weeks and three more debates to go – two presidential and one vice-presidential – before the Nov. 6 election. Obama, in fact, has a history of ups and downs as a political performer, and a history of coming back when he gets knocked down.

Romney, too, has a history of getting knocked down, then reviving when his back is against the wall.  

Indeed, Romney had to do well in Wednesday’s debate, or the half-written obituaries on his campaign would likely have been completed. Perhaps Romney’s biggest regret will be that the debates started so late in the campaign. Early voting has already started in some states, including Ohio, arguably the most crucial battleground in the country, which opened its polls on Tuesday. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio.

“It's too bad that voters didn't see this Romney sooner,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, suggesting that the former governor showed glimpses of the "reasonable, practical" Massachusetts moderate whom Democrats feared. “The only person who had a worse night than President Obama was Sesame Street's Big Bird.”

During the debate, when asked what federal spending he would cut, Romney targeted the Public Broadcasting Service, home to the children’s show “Sesame Street.” He expressed love for the show’s large, feathery central character. Then he followed with a nod to the debate’s moderator, Mr. Lehrer of PBS’s “Newshour,” another icon of public TV.

“I actually like you too,” Romney said.

The quip seemed prepackaged, but no matter. It was a light moment in a fairly dry debate, and for a candidate who has struggled with likability, it was one of many reasons Republicans have a spring in their step Thursday morning.

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