Mitt Romney's dominance in the first presidential debate was so clear-cut that President Barack Obama's admirers in the news media couldn't spin it away. Mr. Romney won, 46 percent to 22 percent, in CBS' instapoll of viewers. In CNN's flash poll, it was Mr. Romney 67 percent and Mr. Obama 25 percent.
Conservatives were ecstatic, liberals dismayed. MSNBC's talking heads looked as if "someone shot all their dogs," tweeted a writer for National Review. The best the spinners could spin was there was no "game-changing" moment.
A sign of the shallowness of political journalists is that for them, a "game-changing" moment is either a gaffe, as when President Gerald Ford "liberated Poland" during a debate with Jimmy Carter; a clever rejoinder, as when President Ronald Reagan told Walter Mondale he wouldn't hold his "youth and inexperience" against him; or a put-down, as when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle, "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Substance takes a back seat.
So Mr. Romney didn't hit a home run. But he went 4 for 4. President Obama couldn't get the ball out of the infield.
Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard dampened conservative glee a little when he recalled that Mr. Mondale was the winner in his first debate with President Reagan. "The triumph on one night by Mondale led nowhere," Mr. Barnes said. "Romney needs to keep in mind that victory in one debate and victory on Nov. 6 are two different things."
Mr. Barnes should have reflected more on why Mr. Mondale's superior performance did him no good. This debate was a "game-changer." Here's why:
The Mitt Romney that 60 million viewers saw Wednesday night was very different from the fellow portrayed in Democratic attack ads, and by most in the "mainstream" media.
Because CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and MSNBC have been de facto extensions of the Obama campaign, this was "the first time millions of people ever heard Mitt Romney make a case for himself at any length," noted Jonah Goldberg of National Review.
The Mitt Romney in Denver was knowledgeable, energetic, passionate, principled. He was aggressive, without being rude or mean. He seemed like a nice guy. He was in command -- of the facts and on the stage. He was more presidential than the president.
Mr. Romney "brilliantly dismantled the straw man Obama has been running against for months," Mr. Goldberg said.
I'm experiencing deja vu. I worked in the Reagan campaign in 1980. Jimmy Carter was a failed president, Americans had concluded. But they weren't sure the alternative was better. The "mainstream" media were saying Ronald Reagan was too old, too stupid, too far to the right. In a Gallup poll on the eve of their only debate Oct. 28, Mr. Carter led by 6 percentage points.
In the debate, Mr. Reagan eviscerated the media's caricature of him. "There you go again," he gently chided the president when he caught him lying. He asked the now famous question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
Americans knew they weren't. Reagan won 44 states.
Barack Obama has the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover, the worst foreign policy record since Mr. Carter. Americans regard him, too, as a failed president. But because their impressions of the GOP candidate were formed by what the ads and the pundits said about him, many doubted Mr. Romney would be an improvement.
Now millions must think they've been lied to, because the Mitt Romney in Denver "bears no resemblance to the caricature that the left, the media and the 30-second ads have painted," said blogger Peter Ingemi (Da Tech Guy).
Nor did the Barack Obama on stage Wednesday resemble the Titan of media mythology. He was "weak, hesitant, stuttering, often apologetic," said blogger John Hinderaker (Power Line). He was "halting, uncomfortable, exhausted, depressed," said Prof. Paul Rahe, political historian at Hillsdale College.
After the doom and gloom of the Carter years, it was "morning in America" by the time of the Reagan-Mondale debates. The economy was booming, the Iranian hostages freed, the military rebuilt. That's why Mr. Mondale's superior debate performance "led nowhere." Substance may not matter much to journalists, but it does to most voters.
President Obama's failures are as evident as were President Reagan's successes. That's why Mitt Romney's superior performance likely leads to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-262-1479).