My column: Obama won the debate, but what is the impact on Ohio?

The diverse herd, populated by bulls branded red and blue, has moved in the same direction, a stray cow or two notwithstanding: The president won the debate.

I agree. But you know what? That doesn’t really matter.

What matters is what those unfortunately benighted undecided voters think – and there were few of those in the hall at Hofstra on Tuesday evening. Even more so than that small universe of undecided voters, what really determines the outcome now is how Democrats and Republicans feel – the ones in Ohio, that is.

Mitt Romney needs Ohio to win, despite what you may have read, because he is, unless something cataclysmic occurs, almost surely going to lose Nevada. Give Ohio and Nevada to Barack Obama, and Romney starts preparing for how to beat Marco Rubio in the 2016 primary.

I felt for Romney last night, having to debate the president at the equivalent of a Democratic Central Committee meeting.  Why in the world have the encounter on Long Island in a state as blue as they come? At one point, I half-expected a questioner to say, “Hey, governor, what kind of yoga do you do so you can both be a flip-flopper on most issues and have a steel spine to fire all those workers and destroy companies while you were at Bain?”

Romney, before his Libya disaster, parried the hostile questions fairly well, managing to turn them on the president, too, a couple of times. Yes, he was losing the debate until the Libya misadventure. But not by a lot, and he had scored some points.

But Obama, after auditioning two weeks ago for a part in “The Walking Dead,” was reanimated. He was, it seemed, wound up, like some human Romney opposition research robot, ready with one-liners and facts on every topic. Obama had been transmogrified by his near-death experience in the first debate into the peripatetic (he could barely stay in his chair) and pulsing (with information and energy) president.

From the beginning, Obama was all over Romney, with his “You don’t have a five-point plan; you have a one-point plan” rehearsed zinger to his rehearsed outrage at Romney’s Libya rhetorical missiles. I actually thought the president was too hot during the first part of the debate. But he recalibrated from blowtorch to laser and was, generally, very effective.

This was, as others have pointed out, a real debate, too. There was the usual fudging and fussing, especially by Romney over rules and timing. (And I thought his “women in binders” comment was typical Romney awkwardness and nothing more, despite the horrific bleating of the Democratic sheep.) But they engaged each other, often talking over each other, and CNN’s Candy Crowley did her job – she let them go for a spell and then guided them back or took another question.

(Full disclosure: I abhor the town hall format. The more the candidates can interact, leavened by interjections from a skilled, knowledgeable moderator, the better. The Hofstra format is a sop by the Commission on Presidential Debates to “real voters,” so they can ask questions. Well…that was real disappointing. And what did they expect in a Democratic bastion? Fair questions?)

Until the Libya question changed the debate – and perhaps re-set the race (but I am just a lowly member of the herd, so who knows?) – I thought Obama already had accomplished what he needed to do: Reassure the base, maybe even excite them, and keep the numbers, especially in Ohio, from going south.

Romney had done nothing to dispirit his advisers  -- he is a good debater despite his odd mannerisms (that dismissive left-handed wave when he speaks and his frozen smirk).  But then came Libya, which Team Romney has hoped would be Obama’s Waterloo.

Instead, even though the president was prepared and Romney had to know he would be, the governor brought a knife to a gunfight – and stabbed himself with it.

I stipulate that the administration still has questions to answer and that the details remain murky. And there is no doubt that the stories have shifted and been inconsistent.

But, as even most conservatives have pointed out, even if they were upset about Crowley’s real-time fact-check of whether Obama said anything about terrorism the day after  (he did, but he didn’t blame terrorists), Romney had no excuse. He focused on that assertion, instead of going in for the kill on the very real questions of accountability and leadership.

You could almost see the GOP nominee deflate after that happened. Instead of fairly bounding around the stage, he sleepwalked through the rest of the debate, even opening the door to the 47 percent close by Obama.

If there were sound effects, you would have heard a “Pfffft” through the hall. The air went out of Romney.

The race, of course, is not over. There are still three weeks less a day and much can happen. A gaffe. An unforeseen domestic or foreign news event. Ohio moves back into Romney territory.

The herd is right that Obama won the debate. But the herd that matters,  the ones casting tens of millions of votes -- or at least the hundreds of thousands in Ohio – have not yet decided that the race is over.