ANALYSIS: No knockout, but Romney wins on points

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DENVER -- Like a challenger itching for a fight, Mitt Romney came out swinging Tuesday night.

And he connected -- perhaps, he didn't land a knockout blow, but most analysts agreed that the Republican presidential nominee, won on points and gave a strong performance that may convince some Americans to give his campaign a second look.

Obama, who appeared somewhat listless and gave answers that were long and flat in many cases, looked like a candidate playing prevent defense, one who knows he's sitting on a lead.

The next cycle of polls will show how solid that lead remains after a night where the only worse performance than Obama's came from moderator Jim Lehrer, who got the silence he asked for from the crowd but was never able to keep the candidates to their time limit or even to force them to answer the specific questions he was asking.

Obama, who holds a rally at Sloan's Lake Thursday morning before leaving Colorado for Wisconsin, seemed an altogether different person on the debate stage than he's been on the stump.

Understated and, to some degree, unemotional, Obama also eschewed many of the attack lines and talking points that he features almost constantly on the stump and in heavy rotation on the airwaves.

Obama calmly explained the benefits of "Obamcare" and the Dodd-Frank Act, but he never once took credit for the death of Osama bin Laden or the resuscitation of the auto industry.

Anyone playing a drinking game expecting mentions of Romney's "47 percent" statement likely ended the night in a strange state of sober confusion.

Romney, on the other hand, who's been characterized as robotic and even tone-deaf at times, was animated and sharp, looking to convey more empathy by answering a number of questions with anecdotes about Americans he's met throughout his campaign and never missing a chance to pin a problem -- be it chronic unemployment or significant deficit spending -- on the president.

Maybe Romney had more to gain in this first meeting between himself and President Obama, and maybe the initial debate is traditionally better suited for a challenger.

But Romney, who's only started emphasizing the people his policies would affect after the 47 percent gaffe, also made a point of portraying himself as more of a moderate -- stating outright that he won't raise taxes on the middle class or cut taxes on the wealthy, "abandoning" a pillar of his economic platform, as Obama put it.

The coming weeks will reveal whether Romney's move on taxes is a smart shift to the center or a flip-flop the Obama campaign seeks to exploit.

It's a pivot many expected to come months ago, but many Republicans who have expressed outright disbelief that Romney appeared to be blowing an election that should be within his grasp, are taking heart that there may be some fight -- and a stronger message -- in Romney after all -- and five weeks to complete a comeback.