Romney forced US President Barack Obama repeatedly on to the defensive.
Although Romney is still trailing badly in the polls, especially in the crucial swing states, his strong showing lifted conservative morale with just more than four weeks left to turn the campaign around.
The two sparred mainly over the economy, in particular tax, jobs and healthcare during a statistics- and policy-laden 90-minute debate on Wednesday night that was seen by an estimated 50-million viewers.
Romney was forceful, accusing Obama of repeatedly portraying his policies as inaccurate. Obama, looking tired and at times irritated, remained largely calm.
Romney's campaign team hailed it as a victory. Eric Fehrnstrom, his campaign spokesman, said: "Governor Romney clearly won. If this was a boxing match the referee would have stopped it."
David Plouffe, one of the architects of Obama's victory in 2008 and a senior member of his campaign this year, was subdued. "We are going to come out of this debate okay," he said, adding that the Romney team had needed a game-changer and this was not one.
Stephanie Cutter, a member of Obama's campaign team, insisted the president had won the debate on substance, but admitted Romney had won for style and preparation.
A CNN flash poll of registered voters had 67% saying Romney had won it, whereas just 25% gave it to Obama.
One of Bill Clinton's best-known strategists, James Carville, told CNN he had been left with "one overwhelming impression … It looked like Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there … It gave you the impression that this whole thing was a lot of trouble."
Romney needed a good night after being confronted with setback after setback over the past two months that has left him trailing Obama in the polls. Although Obama remains the favourite to secure re-election on November 6, Romney may at least have stopped his campaign slump.
The first of the clashes came over the economy, when Obama asked how Romney was simultaneously going to cut the country's burgeoning deficit while cutting $5-trillion in taxes for the wealthy, extending Bush-era tax cuts and raising military spending.
Romney totally denied it. In the tone he maintained for most of the night, he said: "I'm not in favour of a $5-trillion tax cut. That's not my plan … So you may keep referring to it as a $5-trillion tax cut, but that's not my plan."
At times, Romney patronised the president, saying that he did not understand business or accountancy. "Mr President, you're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts," he said at one point.
In another powerful attack, which is at the core of the Romney message, he listed unkept promises and told Obama: "You've been president for four years."
The president, by contrast, was hesitant in his responses. One of the biggest surprises was that he failed to deliver any of the attacks that have been successful on the campaign trail and have been used to devastating effect in television ads in swing states. There was, for instance, no mention of Romney's disparaging remarks about the 47% of the population being freeloaders.
The main image of the night will be of Romney, eyes alight, gesticulating from the podium with a rarely seen passion while Obama delivered most of his answers with his head down.
It was not a disastrous night for Obama. That calm, measured approach is part of the reason why many Democrats like him and it may also appeal to independents.
Most televised debates have little impact on the eventual outcome, but this one will at least change the growing perception of Romney as a loser, even if only temporarily. – © Guardian News & Media 2012