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Wake up, Obama, before you sleepwalk to defeat

WITH televised presidential debates, the post-match traditions are as important as the warm up: the spin room jousting about who won and how; the commentariat blethering their verdicts; and this time, as never before, the tweeters tweeting.

It all adds to the gaiety of the occasion.

As does Saturday Night Live, the American comedy show that has punctured many a presidential hopeful's hopes. About now, the writers will be trying to pin down what happened on Wednesday night in Denver, Colorado, as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama went mano a mano for the first time. They could do worse than put Obama in a Wee Willie Winkie nightcap and have him clutching a teddy bear ready for bed. Has there ever been a candidate who looked more like he was sleepwalking to defeat?

Those of us watching from the UK had good reason to be bleary-eyed. It was 3.30am Glasgow time by the time moderator Jim Lehrer said goodnight. The reason for Obama's snooziness is not yet known – too much iPad surfing perhaps – but his team had better fix it fast. He was so off his game it took him until four minutes before the end of the debate to mention finding Bin Laden.

It could simply have been a bad night, a one-off. This has been a long campaign already, but more so for Mr Romney, who had to tumble his way through the 33-ring circus that was the Republican primaries. If anyone should seem tired, it's the former governor of Massachusetts.

Yet he wasn't the one appearing distracted and looking weary. Admittedly, it did not take much for Mr Romney to seem halfway competent. Expectations for the Republican candidate were about as high as a gnat's eye. All he had to do was turn up, avoid bumping into the furniture, and not insult half the population, again, by saying he didn't care about the 47 % "dependent on government". Easy enough.

Romney managed all that, and a little more. This was a debate on the economy that was heavy on policy and light on soundbites. After a campaign notable so far for its vicious attack ads, both men were at pains to appear measured. One hopes they drop the niceties a little by the time of the second debate on October 16. Debate tennis, politely knocking the topic from side to side, is praiseworthy but hardly gripping. Where was the Andy Murray-style emotion?

Besides making for better television, a little more pep would reflect the passions at large in the country. The past few decades have seen the divide in American politics widen. Instead of each candidate fighting for a solid ground of 20-30% of undecideds, they face a field in which the majority of voters have made up their minds long before polling day. Today, there could be as few as 5% of the electorate yet to choose which way to vote. When he was a lowly senator aspiring to office, Mr Obama said there would be no more red states and blue states. Now there is nothing but, leaving only a handful of states to decide this election.

It was to that constituency of undecideds that Mr Obama and Mr Romney had to direct their message. Mr Romney set out to counter the impression that he was a rich man out to protect his own kind, that he had serious, workable plans to cut the deficit and increase jobs, that he would not deprive Americans of affordable healthcare and social security when they needed them. Mr Obama had to convince those same undecideds that Mr Romney would not be as good as his words and that, he, the President, had plenty more juice in his batteries.

Mr Romney had more to say to those undecideds than Mr Obama. He went out of his way to reassure them, to convince them that he knew what worked. Every time he mentioned his business experience, Mr Obama, the law lecturer of old, looked ever more vulnerable. "I've been in business for 25 years," grinned Mr Romney, the fat cat who got the cream and was proud of the fact. No matter that Mr Romney was born into privilege, this is a powerful, primal message to those undecideds. Faced with a choice of where to place a bet on your future, why not go with the guy who has won the jackpot already?

In trying to counter this, Mr Obama cited everyone from Ronald Reagan and his approach to tweaking social security to his own grandmother, the one who brought up the young Barack. It is a measure of how much Mr Obama has overplayed the personal card that this didn't hit home as much as it might once have done. America knows his story; they've read the book, or the acres of newsprint, they've seen his personal ads. Now they need to know, four years into the job, what he is going to do next. As he said himself, it is all about the arithmetic: how to cut the deficit, how to reduce the number of unemployed from 12.5 million, how to pay for more with fewer tax dollars coming in – all the sums that determine lives. Mr Obama can still win. One good night for Mr Romney does not a President make, and it could yet go horribly wrong for him when the debates move on to areas such as foreign policy, immigration and abortion. Mr Romney has barely begun to be tested.

If Mr Obama is to best him, as he failed to do on Wednesday night, he has to rediscover the fire in his belly, a fire last seen not when he was fighting John McCain, but when he was battling Hillary Clinton for the nomination. Mr Obama did not need to worry about Mr McCain. After eight years of Dubya, he didn't need to fear any Republican, far less one who had a desperately ambitious housewife as a running mate. He did fear Mrs Clinton though. It was Mrs Clinton who tested his mettle, who made him ready for the White House.

Mr Romney may not be the most able politician, but what his candidacy represents, a desire for action, is a force to be reckoned with. The last two one-term presidents, Jimmy Carter and George Bush Snr, lost because their opponents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were hungrier for victory. The incumbents looked tired, hesitant, the way Mr Obama looked on Wednesday.

All roads now lead to another college, Hofstra University in New York, for the second of the three presidential debates. Mr Obama has one strike against him; any more and he runs the risk of being out of this race.

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