The big surprise in President Barack Obama's first debate with Mitt Romney was how he left unused in the bottom of his strategy bag any references to the most prominent gaffes by the former Massachusetts governor.
There was not a single allusion to Mr. Romney's wealth and the repeated pre-debate allegations that it blinded him to the economic plight of average Americans. Notably absent was the Republican's notorious putdown of "the 47 percent" of Americans beyond his reach, which seemed to dismiss them as moochers.
Mr. Obama said not a word about Mr. Romney's refusal to provide multiple past federal income tax returns as even his late father had done in seeking the Republican presidential nomination 44 years earlier. Nor was there any mention of his role at Bain Capital in closing plants and outsourcing jobs that cast him as a heartless corporate raider.
Even Mr. Romney's hapless dog Seamus, imprisoned in a cage on the roof of his car as the family headed on vacation — a favorite subject of a supposedly serious journalist at a serious newspaper — got a free ride in a debate that for once took the high road and stayed on it for 90 minutes.
Many might say it was a boring hour and a half bereft of much levity, point-scoring zingers (reported erroneously by one serious newspaper as planned by Mr. Romney), or temper tantrums of the sort that marked some of the endless Republican primary debates. Without the likes of fire-breathing Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, vitriol was AWOL on the Denver stage.
Mr. Obama's chief political strategist in the White House, David Plouffe, who was his campaign manager in 2008, was asked after the debate about the conspicuously unfired gun. He said Mr. Romney's 47-percent gaffe had already been widely circulated, as indeed it was through hard-hitting television ads using the actual video of his remarks at the closed fat-cat fundraiser.
A well-established political axiom holds that when your opponent gets himself into hot water, it may be best just to let him stew in it awhile. The Obama campaign hardly ignored the gaffe in the period leading up to the first debate, but the moderator pointedly chose not to invite a discussion on it.
It may have been the Obama camp's notion that the occupant of the Oval Office should not undermine his own presidential stature. But Mr. Obama gave Mr. Romney an opportunity to present himself as presidential with a firm grasp of the issues, and for once of his own sometimes erratic demeanor. The challenger was able to debate in what was essentially a no-fly zone of personal attack.
Most instant post-debate surveys indicated that the hard-hitting Mr. Romney "won" the first debate. So Mr. Obama is clearly on notice that he needs to bring more clarity in the second one on Oct. 16 in alleging that Mr. Romney's path to swifter recovery is based on faulty assumptions.
Having taken a pass on exploiting Mr. Romney's past gaffes and rich-man insensitivities, Obama may risk looking desperate if he comes out swinging in the next debate. But self-control has always been one of his trademark characteristics, and his strategists will be watching the polls closely between now and then gauging what course to take.
As for Romney, it will be interesting to see whether he will continue to display the Mitt who was successful as a moderate in Massachusetts — not running away from "Romneycare" and now saying good words about regulation of Wall Street. Or will he revert to the "severely conservative" Mitt of the primaries who chose poster-boy Paul Ryan as his running mate?
Now that Mr. Romney has earned a greater spotlight with his performance in Denver, campaign watchdogs will be more tenaciously examining which path he will follow as he strives to target the undecideds who may be taking a more sympathetic look at him.
All along, the Romney strategy has been to convince 2008 Obama supporters that their man has had his chance and it's OK and safe to give someone else a chance. It's up to Mr. Obama more than ever now to disabuse them of any such notion and to recover his own footing.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.