Mitt Romney is finally feeling some love after the first presidential debate, where a lackluster President Barack Obama let him get away with selling himself as a moderate to viewers who haven't been paying much attention to the race so far.
The post-debate spin cycle dubbed Mr. Romney the clear winner. Not because he was consistent, factually correct or even accurately portraying his own positions -- he wasn't any of these things -- but because he looked alert and energetic on the offensive while Mr. Obama, clearly having an off night, barely put up any defense at all.
Having had some success in remaking himself that night, Mr. Romney is now going a step further, renouncing his own infamous comment deriding 47 percent of Americans as lazy freeloaders. Unaware he was being recorded at a private fundraiser for wealthy donors in May, Mr. Romney solidified his image as a super-rich guy out of touch with his struggling countrymen.
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," he said. "There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.
"Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax," he continued, adding that his job "is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Facing a firestorm of criticism for those remarks, Mr. Romney stood by them, conceding only that they were "not elegantly stated."
But on Thursday night, Fox News asked him what response he'd have given if Mr. Obama had raised the 47 percent (incredibly, the president did not). And he completely reversed course.
"Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you're going to say something that doesn't come out right," Mr. Romney said. "In this case, I said something that's just completely wrong."
He added: "And I absolutely believe, however, that my life has shown that I care about 100 percent and that's been demonstrated throughout my life. And this whole campaign is about the 100 percent."
Apparently, Mr. Romney has suddenly realized that one doesn't win a general election by insulting nearly half the population. But his awakening just five weeks before election day is more than a little suspicious. If Mr. Obama can't make hay out of that in the next debate, he might as well stay home.
Obama supporters are not happy about his performance on Wednesday. It took only four minutes to see that he was sleepwalking while the challenger was wide awake.
The president's performance was so drab and boring, he would have done better to take Michelle out for an anniversary dinner and let Mr. Romney talk to an empty chair. Mr. Romney, on the other hand, was feisty, clear and concise, if not downright perky.
I hardly ever watch live events anymore -- why suffer through the snore-worthy stuff in real time when you can wait a few hours and get the highlights online? -- but the highlights were enough to tell the tale. No-drama Obama was in the hall that night, but some drama was precisely what was needed.
When I ran into Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald a day later, he gave me an example of a mile-wide opening that the president missed. When Mr. Romney accused him of picking losers, the president should have retorted, "Yeah, I picked two losers, Chrysler and General Motors, and we saved them both when you wanted to let them go down the drain."
Mr. Obama didn't commit any gaffes that night, but his sins of omission were glaring. They probably won't change the outcome of the race, but he needs to get back in control of his message.
What passes for presidential "debate" in the modern age increasingly resembles the entertainment industry, where the reviews can be make-or-break. A candidate is only seen to have done as well as the commentators say he did, based on test groups, insta-polls and their own gut checks.
Much of the electorate doesn't start tuning in to the presidential candidates until October. Voters who come into the debates without knowing what the candidates have said and done up to that point count on the media to tell them what they saw.
Apparently, it took a passel of bad reviews to shake the president out of his torpor. The next day he was out on the hustings, half-joking that his opponent the previous night was an impostor.
"When I got on to the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney," he said at a Denver rally on Thursday. "The man on stage last night does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney's decisions."
Yeah, well, maybe some counterpunches would have held him accountable. The president's prep team needs to pound that into his skull before the next debate.
Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1610).