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It took only one lethargic performance from his opponent for Mitt Romney to undo his image as a heartless plutocrat and emerge as the leading contender for the White House, writes

Two weeks ago, it was all over but the shouting.

As the US presidential campaign entered its final month, the press polished their post-mortems for the Romney campaign while Democrats oiled up the confetti cannons. Republicans openly bickered over whether Tea Party purists or establishment pragmatists had cost the party the election.

Yet today, Republican nominee Mitt Romney leads the race, surging not only in national polls but in crucial swing states. He has closed the enthusiasm gap as well: his rallies now attract "Obama-sized crowds".

What a difference a debate makes.

Prior to the first presidential debate in Denver, the pundits made a sound case for why, win or lose, the debate would do little to reverse Romney's downhill slide. Historically, debates rarely altered the trajectory of the race, and they almost never changed its underlying dynamics. Nor did Romney have a natural talent for spontaneous give-and-take. Take away his script and like a moth to a flame, he'd inevitably drift toward a gaffe.

Yet Romney not only won the debate, he did so in a way that fundamentally changed the race. Neither the bruising vice-presidential match-up nor last week's pugilistic town-hall debate will undo that shift.

While the numbers will settle some in the coming days, Romney's surge has proven remarkably durable. Nearly two weeks after the first debate, his poll numbers continue to climb, undented by economic news that should have favoured President Obama. The unemployment rate may have hit a four-year low the morning after the Denver debacle, but the news did little to stop Obama's tumble in the polls.

So how did one debate upend the presidential race? It took the combined efforts of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, but together they managed to reverse every narrative of the 2012 campaign.

For instance, Romney as heartless plutocrat. By the end of the summer, the Obama campaign had turned Romney's business experience into a liability. Romney stood accused of gutting companies, firing workers, and offshoring industries. Add to that his infamous 47 per cent comments — Romney's dismissal of half the electorate as leeches on the body politic — and the charges of vulture capitalism were starting to stick.

Yet in the initial 90-minute debate on the economy, Obama never referenced the 47 per cent or Romney's time at Bain Capital. He never challenged Romney's questionable assertion that good businessmen make good statesmen. Undecided voters took their cues from the president. If these issues weren't important enough for Obama to mention, then perhaps they don't matter.

Nor could Obama recapture this narrative, as instant-reaction polls during the second debate revealed. When the president mentioned the 47 per cent in his closing statement on Tuesday night, undecided voters showed a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Obama also ceded his empathy advantage. Before the first debate, the Obama campaign had successfully painted Romney as an out-of-touch patrician who would never understand the struggles of the middle class. Romney obliged with a steady stream of evidence.

The tin-eared millionaire told a group of unemployed voters he too was out of work and looking for a job. While trawling for votes at an auto race, he admitted he didn't follow the sport closely. "But," he clarified, "I have some great friends who are NASCAR owners."

No doubt eager to chip away at this image, Romney opened the first debate with two personal stories of voters reaching out for help. He quoted their pleas — "I've been out of work since May. Can you help me?" — and spoke with warmth about the struggles of the middle class. It was a page right out of Bill Clinton's feel-their-pain politics.

And what did Obama, Clinton's heir, do? He waited until the debate was half over to mention any personal interactions with voters. And when he finally broached the subject, he spoke flatly and with little warmth. It was a recitation, not a testimonial.

That detachment undercut a central argument of the Obama campaign: the president, dealt a bad hand, was giving his all to make things better. Voters seemed to accept this. True, the economy was weaker and recovery slower than they would like. But polls suggested the majority of voters believed Obama understood their struggles and fought on their behalf.

Yet the Obama who showed up for the first debate didn't have much fight in him. He had clearly underprepared. In contrast to Romney's taut, well-structured responses, Obama often fumbled for his point. Even his closing statement, which should have been the most polished part of his presentation, devolved into a rambling tangle of half-developed ideas.

If it seemed like Obama wasn't taking the debate seriously, it's because he wasn't. Sources close to the campaign report Obama considers Romney an unserious candidate and unworthy opponent. At the first debate, his disdain for Romney translated into disdain for the process and for the voters struggling to make up their minds. No wonder undecideds have started to break for his opponent.

At the second debate, Obama laboured to reverse the damage. The president showed up ready to fight, to repaint the portrait of Mitt Romney the monocled money-man. But absent critical gaffes on Romney's part, Obama was battling the current with one oar.

With three weeks left, the race remains too close to call. But one thing is now certain: debates do matter. Indeed, it was Barack Obama's belief that debates couldn't change the race that gave Mitt Romney the chance to prove that they could.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum