Romney debates an empty chair

One presidential candidate showed up to debate Wednesday night. His name is Mitt Romney.

President Obama was often grim, mostly disengaged, and generally ineffective in their first showdown. He could have been standing next to anyone; he never seriously challenged Romney on any point he made. Romney was sharp, aggressive, and ”likeable enough,” to borrow a phrase from candidate Obama in 2008.

As the night wore on and Romney realized that debating Obama was not unlike standing next to an empty chair, the Republican nominee got cockier and less appealing. But for much of the debate, Romney — not Obama — offered up the anecdotes that connect a candidate with the people. He also had the soundbites that stick, like ”trickle-down government” and ”you just pick the losers,” a reference to Obama's selection of green energy companies like Solyndra. But mostly he had command of the stage — and of debate moderator Jim Lehrer.

Obama must have spent his debate prep reading his poll numbers, instead of reading history, particularly as it applies to Romney's debating skills. In 2002, Romney won his only political office — governor of Massachusetts — by out-debating Democrat Shannon O'Brien.

But before that, Romney took the venerable Ted Kennedy by surprise. As the late, great Globe columnist David Nyhan wrote on Oct. 26, 1994, after the first debate in that legendary showdown: ”My guess is that the Senate race, deadlocked two weeks ago, was breaking open for Kennedy. Last night's solid performance by Romney may keep that gap from widening immediately . . . I give Round One to Mitt Romney.”

In Nyhan's view, ”the old war horse” — Kennedy — had ”too much going for him.” He predicted he would come roaring back to win, and he did.

Obama could, too. If he doesn't, he will never again have to fret about spending another wedding anniversary in front of 40 million people.

Contact Vennochi, a columnist for The Boston Globe, at vennochi@globe.com.