DENVER -- The candidates were still onstage, delivering their closing statements, but behind the scenes the march of the Republicans had begun. Into the vast media hangar they came, parading triumphantly beneath red signs bearing their names under the "R" campaign logo of Mitt Romney:
Portman. Rubio. Giuliani. Hatch.
They had come to claim victory before the first presidential debate had concluded, a show of confidence and no shortage of satisfaction after a long month of GOP self-doubt in their belief that their candidate had clearly bested President Barack Obama.
"We have a new race, ladies and gentlemen," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., declared the moment Romney uttered the last word of his closing statement.
It would be 15 more minutes before the first Democrats arrived in the media spin room first campaign director Jim Messina, then senior White House adviser David Plouffe, looking tired and uncertain as a handler guided him, weaving and bumping, through the crush of reporters surrounding the Romney surrogates.
At first, an aide held the blue Plouffe sign downward, rather than high above in the jaunty way the Republicans had done.
Reporters rushed over to Plouffe and peppered the usually implaccable adviser with questions: Did Obama lack energy? Did the president miss a chance to land jabs? Should he have been more aggressive?
"I think you guys all seem to think that Romney was aggressive," Plouffe said, trying to fight back. "My sense is youre going to find some people at home thought he was quite testy. I think sometimes in these debates, particularly with Twitter, Oh, look at this, Romneys being aggressive."
There seemed to be little doubt, though, that Republicans were newly energized after weeks of setbacks. A secretly recorded video of Romneys remarks at a private fundraiser had put the candidate on the defensive about his commitment to the poor and middle class. Polls showed Obama opening a small but clear lead nationally and in the swing states.
GOP strategists had said Romney needed to hit Obama hard over his record on the economy, and he did that repeatedly.
Just as Romney tried to take command of the debate stage looking into Obamas eyes as he he tried to indict his presidency, interrupting the moderator to press his points the Republican surrogates tried to shape the media narrative coming out of Denver.
"If this was a boxing match, the referee wouldve called it about an hour into the fight," Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani tried a different metaphor. "The American people saw the difference between a teacher and student," he said.
The Romney camp, as disciplined and unemotional as the candidate, allowed some elation on Wednesday night. There was Bob White, Romneys closest friend and Bain Capital co-founder, a stones throw from the Fox News set, hamming it up with Ron Kaufman, a longtime Romney adviser and confidant.
Over in the corner, by the dark tunnel entrance, Stuart Stevens, Romneys chief strategist who has come under fire from critics as Romney has slipped in the polls felt redemption.
"Clearly someone dominated in a debate in a way we havent seen in a presidential debate in a long time," he said.
Visibly pleased with his candidates performance, Stevens added, "Who enjoyed being on that stage tonight?"