WASHINGTON (AP) — For weeks, Republican Party elders fretted that the presidential race was slipping through Mitt Romney's fingers. The handwringing — for the moment — has stopped.
The GOP nominee's strong head-to-head showing against President Barack Obama in their first debate earned Romney praise from some of his harshest critics and frequent doubters, maybe even too much.
"This was one of the best debate performances in my life," radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh gushed before getting his dates a bit confused. "I know people are saying, 'In the last 20 years? That would take us back to 1980.' And Reagan was awesome. But this was awesome from start to finish."
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol seemed to declare detente with Romney's campaign after weeks of urging the Republican to revamp his strategy.
"Mitt Romney stood and delivered the best debate performance by a Republican presidential candidate in more than two decades," Kristol said of Romney's Wednesday night performance. "Romney spoke crisply about the next four years as well as the last four years, was detailed in clarifying the choice of paths ahead, and seemed more comfortable, more energetic and even more presidential than the incumbent."
Kristol also asked a question probably on the minds of many in the GOP: "Can his campaign turn a very good debate into a true inflection point in the presidential race?"
For months, GOP critics have complained openly about the state of Romney's campaign. They griped that Romney hadn't responded aggressively enough to Obama attacks. They questioned his focus on fundraising in the homestretch and complained that he wasn't detailing his proposals for on-the-fence voters. They also grumbled that Romney seemed more interested in winning the news cycle than in executing a broader winning strategy.
Some political professionals openly blamed his campaign leadership for sagging poll numbers amid a sour economy that should be dooming the president's re-election bid.
Those worries have faded in the aftermath of a debate for which Romney spent parts or all of at least eight days preparing.
He had rebuttals ready for Obama's criticism and braced for the expected charges. He had fresh catchy rhetoric — "trickle-down government," for example — to criticize Obama for government spending and didn't take tough language personally.
Romney didn't go off-script, as he did in the primaries when he challenged one former rival to a $10,000 bet during a debate. Physically, Romney seemed rested compared to a weary-looking Obama, and he didn't let his rival determine the agenda.
"This was the first time you saw Romney frame the debate on his terms. Many of us have been wondering: Why has this been taking so long?" said Keith Appell, a Republican consultant who advises outside conservative groups.
Even Romney's former GOP rivals lavished him with praise.
"Romney rocked it!" tweeted former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the same candidate who at one point called Romney the worst Republican in the country to face Obama.
"For the first time, Romney did a very good job of linking this horrible economy to Barack Obama's policies," said Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist and former Santorum aide. "Up until then, Obama has done a very good job of linking it all to George Bush. Romney said, 'Not so fast. These are your policies; this has been the slowest recovery and this is your fault.'"
Still, for all the enthusiasm for Romney's performance, Republicans characterized it as a good day but not necessarily a game-changer. They are mindful that a month is a long time in politics and said that Romney needs to work hard to capitalize on any boost he may have gotten out of it. They also were keenly aware that Romney and Obama will meet twice more on the debate stage before Nov. 6.
"I did not think we'd have a home run debate in the first debate," said Nick Ryan, another former Santorum adviser. "If we didn't get a home run, we certainly got a triple."
The question now likely on the minds of many: Can Romney do it two more times — and really change the trajectory of a race polls show is close?