He managed to recover.
And although that same poll says that voters see Romney as less trustworthy than Obama and less understanding of the troubles of everyday folks, the town-hall format in Long Island gave Romney a chance to charm and connect.
He did so.
At the outset, Obama showed some ire and swung at Romney with a basic club of the anti-Mitt campaign.
Addressing an early question on unemployment, Obama mocked Romney's "five-point plan" for economic recovery, calling it only a "one-point plan" under which "folks at the top play by a different set of rules."
At the outset, Romney oozed empathy for a college student asking about post-graduation employment.
"I want you to be able to get a job," he said, "I know what it takes to create good jobs. . . . I'm gonna make sure you get a job."
Then it got nasty.
The candidates clashed over gas prices, taxes, Obama's record in office and more.
Mitt, as in the first debate, was more aggressive and controlling. But Obama, unlike in the first debate, pushed his key points for re-election and used his closing comments to smack Mitt for his infamous "47 percent" remarks.
There was a lot of give-and-take.
When Romney noted that gas prices were much lower when Obama took office, Obama came back with, well, sure, because of the '08 recession. Obama then suggested that if Mitt's elected, his policies could lead to "that same mess" and therefore "conceivably" bring gas prices down.
One question - they came from "undecided" voters from the New York area selected by Gallup - to Obama was what he's done to deserve re-election.
He ticked off middle-class tax cuts, ending the Iraq War and killing Osama bin Laden.
But Romney hammered on 23 million Americans unemployed or underemployed and failed Obama promises to reform Medicare or Social Security, reform immigration or cut the deficit.
Obama went at Romney's tax-cut plan, calling it a "sales pitch" without specifics "beyond Big Bird and eliminating Planned Parenthood," in which "the math doesn't add up."
Obama later returned to the Planned Parenthood hit, saying that Romney cuts would mean cutting mammograms and cervical-cancer screening for women in need.
But Romney hit Obama with this: "There are three and a half million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office."
There was little about how Romney "will create" 12 million jobs when economic forecasters, including Moody's, expect that number between 2013 and 2017 under current policies.
There was less about why Obama hasn't touted the number and/or gone at Romney's proposed spending cuts as actually costing jobs.
But this debate was far better than the first, less annoying than the VP bout, and the format seemed to make each candidate more personal to voters.
And even if it didn't help "undecideds" or change the direction of the race again, there's still one more debate ahead.
It's Monday at Lynn University (appropriately, home of the Fighting Knights, since debates turn into fighting nights) in Boca Raton, Fla., on foreign policy.
Contact John Baer at email@example.com. For his recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.