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Romney 1, Obama 0

US President Barack Obama (left) gestures with challenger Mitt Romney at last night’s debate.

WASHINGTON – After several difficult weeks, Republican Mitt Romney found his footing last night in a strong debate performance against Democratic President Barack Obama. The question is whether it is too late to make a difference.

Romney could see a burst of fund raising, new interest from undecided voters and a wave of support from his fellow Republicans after he appeared to have emerged as a clear victor in his first face-to-face confrontation with Obama. Romney likely will benefit from favourable news coverage as well.

Still, with the November 6 election little more than a month away, Romney is running out of time to seize the lead.

Voting has begun in some form or another in 35 states, and six per cent of those have already cast their ballots, according to a Reuters/IPSOS poll released yesterday.

And while debates are among the most memorable events of any presidential campaign, there is little evidence that they can change the outcome of an election.

Obama may have underwhelmed, but he avoided the sort of disastrous performance that can cause backers to reassess support.

“Nobody is going to switch sides on the basis of this debate,” said Samuel Popkin, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Standing on the same stage as the president for the first time, Romney took full advantage of the opportunity to convince voters that he is up to the task of leading the nation.

Speaking in crisp, bullet-pointed paragraphs, Romney came armed with a quiver of “zingers” built for a long afterlife on cable television and YouTube.

“You’re entitled to your own house and your own airplane, but not your own facts,” Romney told Obama at one point.

Obama, by contrast, looked unhappy to be on stage.

His answers were meandering and professorial, laden with facts but short on vision. He argued that Romney’s tax and budget plans don’t add up, but he steered clear of other lines of attack that have proven effective.

“Romney won. The real surprise is that he won so clearly,” said Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University.

Voters seemed to agree.

Some 67 per cent of those surveyed by CNN in a “flash poll” after the debate declared Romney the winner. Obama’s re-election prospects on Intrade, an online prediction market, fell from 74 per cent to 66 per cent.

Obama maintains an advantage in opinion polls. Yesterday, he led Romney by 47 per cent to 41 per cent in the daily Reuters/IPSOS tracking poll, a margin that has held fairly steady since the middle of September.

Other polls have shown the race to be a little closer. Obama holds clear leads in most of the politically divided states that are likely to decide the election.

Many pollsters expect Obama’s margin to shrink somewhat over the coming month, but debates rarely have much of an impact. (Reuters)

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