As if to validate the prescience of the Atlantic’s Robert Wright, there is a “Comeback” meme on the rise tonight.

But give Mitt Romney his due: he earned it.

President Obama was listless, exhausted, halting. When he should have been vigorously twisting the knife, he would pause, search for words, and take 15 seconds to make a point that should have taken five seconds. Romney, by contrast, was gamely and ultraprepared; he never once seemed caught off guard. Romney came into this debate knowing he needed to alter the dynamic of the race. If he didn’t do it tonight, then it couldn’t be done — and for reasons beyond his control.

Critically, in the first third of the debate, Romney seemed to waltz through the bog of statistics in which Obama aimlessly waded, and pounded his message of jobs, jobs, jobs. Was he deceptive at times? You bet. He cleverly misleaded with his response to Obama’s charge that he’d cut taxes by $5 trillion over 10 years. His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, has done this as well. They refuse to own up to how much they’ll reduce revenues, quite apart from how they plan to offset those costs. But the average viewer, I would guess, came away from the debate believing that Mitt Romney will neither cut taxes for the wealthy nor for the middle class. He even emerged as an eloquent defender of smart regulations that are essential to the smooth function of markets!

Obama had his moments. He was particularly strong, I think, on Medicare, characterizing the Romney-Ryan plan as an epochal shift from the status quo. And he anticipated Romney’s retort that he’d preserve traditional fee-for-service Medicare by charging that insurance companies could game a voucherized system by cherry-picking the healthiest beneficiaries. He struck a populist, middle-class-defending, anti-trickle-down tone that, I suspect, median voters will find more appealing than the pundit class.

Overall, though, Obama appeared to be an incumbent who believes he can run out the clock on this race. The thinking is: Make no mistakes; let the battleground ad campaign and ground game do their work. He did not mention Bain Capital. He did not mention the 47 Percent video. He did not mention tax returns. He tried to hang Romneycare around Mitt’s neck, but I think Romney effectively parried it with some blather about bipartisanship and working with Democrats.

The risk of football’s “PRE-vent” defense, of course, is that sometimes it lets your opponent reach the red zone. I can’t say whether Romney’s performance tonight will accomplish that. A lot of conservatives seem to me to be awfully prematurely giddy. But they’re right: Romney did everything he planned to do tonight, and did it extraordinarily well.