President Obama shakes hands in Pittsburgh. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Gwen Ifill was sorely missed during the first of the presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Had she or Candy Crowley or even Diane Sawyer moderated Wednesday night's debate, my guess is that one issue that was completely AWOL would have been called into duty: women's rights.

Don't get me wrong — it wasn't Jim Lehrer's job to bring up what some may label a special interest issue, but a female moderator probably would have.

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And a less reserved Barack Obama should have.

There were many other political paths the president could have pursued during Wednesday's debate. He could have discussed the unemployment crisis in the inner cities. Or union rights. Or tax returns. He should have brought up the secretly recorded "47 percent" videotape with Romney writing off nearly half of the American voting public. He should have brought up Romney's tax returns. And he should have brought up Bain Capital.

Obama didn't. The president left all those talking points in Chicago in the Prudential Building, where all his campaign strategies are cooked up with those issues as the main ingredients. He didn't even knock down or assertively point out any of Romney's misspeaks — such as the charge that Obama has cut $716 billion from Medicare — or redirections — such as Romney now suddenly bragging about his health care bill in Massachusetts.

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So while Romney got a pass, the president got a butt whipping. Unless you are an Obama hater, it was not a sight to behold. It was like watching a real-life mugging in slow motion. And in the process of pummeling the president, Romney gave GOP down-ticket candidates new hope as well.

It wasn't supposed to go that way. All things were unequal until Wednesday's debate, when Romney was finally able make it about the economy — and to do it his way. 

Just hours before the debate, Romney's favorable and unfavorable ratings were upside down. According to a Pew poll, 45 percent disliked him and 40 percent thought he was all right, while Republican pols and pundits were busy bad-mouthing him. President Obama, on the other hand, enjoyed a 55 percent favorability rating, with only 42 percent declaring him not their favorite.

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And the videotape that surfaced in which Romney wrote off 47 percent of Americans as Obama-loving, government-dependent slackers was hogging the media airways and not helping the Republican's standings. An NBC poll had 55 percent turned off to the quarter-billionaire candidate.

The president was also trending upward in his most vulnerable area — 57 percent of Americans said they believed the economy was getting better.

The downer in Denver changed all that. Romney waged a full-frontal attack on the president with zingers and what comedian Stephen Colbert describes as "truthiness."

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Romney's performance was studied and confident. You could see it in his body language. You could see it in his face. You could hear it in his voice.

Obama's was not. The president appeared to be wishing he were out celebrating his 20th-wedding anniversary with Michelle rather than wasting time with Mitt. Obama gave a weak and meek defense of the Dodd-Frank Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. He fumbled as he feebly called out Romney on his claim that he wasn't going to raise taxes on the middle class. He let Romney get away with other flip-flops and distortions. He could have taken the discussion over to contraception and abortion, concerns of particular concern to the women in his base. He didn't.

He failed to speak directly to the one voting bloc that can single-handedly assure his re-election: white women.

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With 94 percent of African Americans in the president's camp and less than 1 percent for Mitt, and with Hispanics favoring Obama 70 percent to 20 percent for Romney, the Republican's path to victory is short and narrow.

White men, the majority of whom have been voting in favor of Republicans since the Nixon era, weren't loving Romney but have been hating Obama.

And thanks to the Republican Party's ongoing war on women, there has been a steady erosion of support. Romney has pledged to get rid of Planned Parenthood. The Republican-led House in Virginia passed a bill to invade women's vaginas. The Republican push for a constitutional amendment in Mississippi would have made an egg a person as soon as it is fertilized.

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Then there is Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akins' "legitimate rape" position and the Republican House hearing during which Sandra Fluke wasn't allowed to speak, followed up with Rush Limbaugh, the Republican's mouthpiece, calling the law-school student a slut.

The list goes on and on. There have been 916 anti-women bills introduced by Republicans since March. Republicans have been on the wrong side of women's issues, including the right to choose, access to health care, equal pay and domestic violence.

The president could have taken these issues to Romney during the debate. He should have mentioned his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Violence Against Women Act. He could have reminded the 50 million or so viewers that his two Supreme Court appointments were both women.

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Obama allowed himself to get caught flat-footed and passionless. But have no fear: The president is competitive by nature. To paraphrase that clichéd sports defense for the losing team: "Wait till the next debate."

Round 2 is scheduled for Oct. 16. It's a town hall setting, and yes, Candy Crowley is moderating.

Cyber columnist Monroe Anderson is a veteran Chicago journalist who has written signed op-ed-page columns for both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times and executive-produced and hosted his own local CBS TV show. He was also the editor of Savoy Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

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Cybercolumnist Monroe Anderson is a veteran Chicago journalist who has written signed op-ed-page columns for both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times and executive-produced and hosted his own local CBS TV show. He was also the editor of Savoy Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.