WELL, well. It's only two weeks since I finished an article on the US election with: "It's not all over, but it's hard to see what disasters can strike Obama now that Romney can't inadvertently rescue him from."
Last Wednesday night, with the polls showing Obama streaking away from Romney in the crucial swing states, I switched on the radio for the presidential debate. My expectations were clear. They would argue tediously about the economy, Romney would say something unfortunate, Obama would lecture him authoritatively, and with luck, I'd be bored back to sleep.
But within a few minutes, I was wide awake. Obama was putting in a dreadful performance and Romney was on song. The whole encounter was riveting.
Wondering if I could trust my judgement, I listened afterwards to a few commentators, and found them all in shock. The polls had showed that only about 20 per cent of Americans thought Romney would win the debate. Now even liberal pundits admitted he had. The commentator Peggy Noonan later obligingly collected some of the words being applied to Obama by tweeting and burbling journalists during the debate: "passive, listless, effete, detached, flaccid, dull-brained, disengaged, professorial".
Obama-supporting TV star Bill Maher, tweeted: "I can't believe I'm saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter." Gay activist Bob Amsel's offering was: "If Obama doesn't get his act together in a hurry, we'll all be saying 'sieg heil' to Fuhrer Romney." Presenter Chris Matthews, who famously told his audience in 2008 that as he listened to an Obama speech, "I felt this thrill going up my leg," asked "Where was Obama tonight?"
Such comments revealed a glaring deficiency in the US liberal establishment. "Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views," said William Buckley once, "but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views." Their contempt for those they think wrong leads them to overrate their own candidates and underrate the opposition. The right may fear and loathe the left, but they respect their vote-winning abilities.
Given a well-written speech and a teleprompter, Obama is inspirational, but he's never been a debater and seeks to avoid being challenged. He's reasonably comfortable with formal press conferences where questions can be controlled, but dislikes any cut-and-thrust and shudders at the prospect of confrontation.
As of last week, he had held only 105 informal Q&A sessions with reporters, compared to 340 for George W Bush at the same point in his presidency, 585 for Bill Clinton and 309 for George Bush senior. Obama tends to favour the deferential and he avoids tangling with opponents, which is one of the reasons he been so poor at making deals with political opponents.
This isolation has fed the vanity and arrogance that resulted in him being so ill-prepared on Wednesday.
Obama's a clever man, but he's not the genius his acolytes depict. Nor is he a messiah. His supporters do him no favours by feeding his flaws.
What made the debate even more striking was that Romney was a different man from the bigoted moron depicted by so much of the liberal press. So great was their contempt for him, that they were blind to his virtues. He has been a successful businessman, a force for modernisation and liberalisation in the Mormon Church, and as governor of Massachusetts, he made deals with the Democratic majority in the state legislature that stuck. He is personally pleasant, and more approachable and better at communicating with Joe and Jane Doe than Obama could ever be. He also has humility. Romney had been rehearsing for weeks: Obama saw no need to bother much.
Of all the attempts to blame anyone but Obama, Al Gore's was my favourite. Romney had been in Denver for days, he said, but Obama had flown in that afternoon and was probably suffering from the altitude. (Climate's the answer to everything for Al.)
Disconsolate Democratic pundits are now suggesting that presidential debates don't matter. But they do. On Wednesday, Obama was just ahead in the key states of Florida and Virginia and eight points ahead in Ohio, the state that hasn't voted for a losing presidential candidate since 1960. On Friday, Romney was ahead in Florida and Virginia and level-pegging in Ohio.
In the history of polling on presidential debates, no one has ever been judged to win by more than 60 per cent: Romney scored 67 per cent. Obama's fighting back and fighting hard. He won't be complacent and under-rehearsed for the other two debates. He'll know that this disaster was of his own making. And that he can't rely on the newly confident Mitt Romney to rescue him.