President Barack Obama's backers scrambled to keep his edge in the presidential race on Thursday after rival Mitt Romney's aggressive debate performance put his campaign on a more positive footing following weeks of setbacks.
Romney gave a strong performance and stayed on the offensive throughout the two men's first head-to-head meeting in the campaign for the November 6 election. But with less than five weeks before Election Day, the Republican still faces a tough fight to overtake the Democrat.
Obama landed some punches on Romney's tax plan, but appeared restrained and missed - or chose not to pursue - several opportunities to attack.
Romney's confident, rigorous debating revived his flagging campaign and could help him cut into Obama's slim but steady lead in opinion polls. But analysts said they still favoured the president's re-election chances.
"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.
Obama campaign surrogates flooded the Thursday morning television talk shows, acknowledging Romney had scored what they called "style points." But they accused Romney of repeated factual errors, such as insisting Obama would cut $716 billion from Medicare, and of changing positions on important issues.
"Again and again and again, he told a story to the American people that is completely in contrast with what he said before and unfounded in fact. And that's going to catch up with him," senior Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"I give him credit for a strong performance. I give him an 'F' for being honest with the American people," Axelrod said.
Obama underwhelmed, but there was no knockout punch or devastating sound bite that could cause backers to reassess their support for the president.
"For now we'll chalk this up as a wake-up call for the president, who still has a vastly superior campaign organization and owns the pivotal issue of Medicare," Greg Valliere, chief political analyst at Potomac Research Group, wrote in a note to clients on Thursday morning.
"But this is still a winnable election for Romney and that was the ultimate take-away last night," he said.
Going into the debate, Obama held a lead of 5 to 6 percentage points over Romney in most national polls, and is ahead by at least narrow margins in almost all the battleground states where the election will be decided.
He was up by 6 points among likely voters in Wednesday's Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll, leading by 47 percent to Romney's 41 percent, a margin that has held fairly steady since mid-September.
Voting has also begun in some form or another in 35 states, and 6 percent of likely voters have already cast their ballots. Another 28 percent intend to do so before November 6, according to the Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Obama next squares off with Romney on October 16 in Hempstead, New York, in what will be in a "town meeting" format during which voters will directly question the candidates. The third and last presidential debate is set for October 22 in Florida.
The only vice presidential debate, between Vice President Joe Biden and Romney's running mate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, will be next Thursday in Danville, Kentucky.
WHAT WASN'T SAID
Even Democratic pundits sharply criticized Obama for looking grim on the stage, giving answers that were meandering and professorial and, most of all, for not hitting back.
Frustrating supporters, Obama steered clear of attacks that helped build his lead, most startlingly by not uttering the phrase that has dominated the campaign for much of the past two weeks: "47 percent.
That would be the percentage of Americans who Romney - speaking at a private fundraiser that was secretly videotaped in May - said were "victims" dependent upon government and unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives.
Obama did not challenge Romney for adopting a more moderate tone, which would appeal to centrist voters, than the strongly conservative line he has toed in the campaign.
Obama also never mentioned Romney's private equity firm, Bain Capital. The Obama campaign had spent months portraying Romney as a job-killer, saying his firm shut down companies, triggered layoffs and helped send thousands of jobs overseas.
Nor did president chide the former Massachusetts governor over his refusal to release more than two years of income taxes. Democrats have questioned whether Romney - who has a fortune estimated at $250 million - is hiding something about his finances and why he keeps millions of dollars in offshore accounts.
Axelrod, speaking on NBC's "Today" show, said Obama chose not go on the attack and instead treated the American population as adults. "He made a decision to discuss the fundamental issues facing this country," Axelrod said.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Samuel P. Jacobs and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Doina Chiacu)