It's wound-licking time for Bay Area Democrats.

As election-season angst rolled in like thick fog over the ultrablue Bay Area, supporters of President Barack Obama on Thursday were still trying to figure out how he had let the previous night's debate with challenger Mitt Romney turn into such a train wreck.

"He made too many mistakes. He stumbled too much. There was something else on his mind," said Obama supporter Joe Miller, 78, at World's Fare Donuts in Hayward, where a short but constant line of people waited to buy coffee, fritters and lottery tickets, as people ¿who filled the booths hunkered down over newspapers or chatted with friends.

The doughnut shop is one of several places that Bay Area News Group reporters will continue to take the political pulse of Bay Area voters as the presidential race goes down to the wire.

Miller, a retired factory mechanic who lives in Hayward, said he felt "suspicious" about the president's weak performance. He wonders if maybe the president was distracted by the memory of his grandmother dying just before the 2008 election, or perhaps by some looming national security emergency. Or maybe the 20th wedding anniversary dinner with wife Michelle that he was forced to skip because of the political showdown in Denver.

Whatever the reason for the president's aloofness, Miller was disappointed not to hear Obama provide "good, clear answers that I know he knows."


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The president gave Romney a huge hook to pull in new converts from among the most important voters of all -- the ones on the fence.

"I was undecided before,'' said Troy Estes, a sophomore business major and debate student who watched Wednesday night's debate with more than 100 fellow students at Santa Clara University. "But Romney's now somebody I could see myself voting for.''

Estes, 19, has a lot of company. After a seemingly lopsided 90-minute standoff, filled with mind-numbing statistics and an incumbent president who at times looked like he wanted to be somewhere else, the polls and pundits were clear: Romney had won, and the already tight presidential race suddenly got tightened a few more notches.

That didn't sit well with Obama supporters Thursday at The Crucible, the industrial arts education center in West Oakland. A few artists ground on metal or ripped wood at the table saw, but with a lull between class sessions, it was unusually quiet -- not unlike the reaction some had to the debate.

"Obama seemed tired,'' said Troy Mickins, 42, of San Leandro, a marketing intern at The Crucible who nonetheless still plans to vote to re-elect the president.

"He seemed off," Mickins said. "Not that the content of what he was saying wasn't good -- it was still spot-on with how I want to see things go with the country. But his physical presence wasn't what it usually is."

Democrats on Thursday scoured the political landscape for some silver lining, something to soothe the malaise that their candidate had spawned.

At World's Fare Donuts, Obama supporter Jerry Reed, 69, of San Leandro, said he thought the president "did all right" at the debate -- and then launched into an attack on the challenger.

"Romney came off as arrogant and out of control. I think he'd had a few too many Red Bulls," said Reed, a retired horse ranch worker. "Obama seemed to have everything under control, and Romney was all over the place."

Even Obama supporters acknowledged that Romney had outmaneuvered the incumbent president, probably winning over many undecided voters in the process.

While he solidly remains in Obama's camp, 22-year-old Westyn Narvaez of Oakland conceded that Romney "unfortunately did a very good job in the debate. If you hadn't been following the campaign and this was the first you'd seen of him, I can see how you might be swayed.''

Republicans, of course, were thrilled by Romney's performance.

"If anything, Romney gained ground," said Austin Freitas, a Santa Clara University debate student. "Neither of the candidates is in panic mode just yet. But then again, there are only a small number of undecided people out there who need to be swayed.

"This must hurt liberals to see how poorly their candidate did,'' Freitas said. "It was not Obama's finest hour.''

Some undecided voters said Romney's performance was enough to nudge them off the fence.

SCU debate student John Lund, a political-science major, said: "I was undecided before, but now my opinion of Romney has gone up a bit, though he still needs to show me more details of his plans to get me to vote for him. All in all, though, I thought he handled himself well.''

Steven Torres, a general contractor from Fairfield and customer at World's Fare Donuts, was leaning toward Obama before the debate. But he said he was so impressed with the debate performance of the former Massachusetts governor that "if I had to make a decision right now, I'd probably go with Romney."

Torres, 42, said Romney seemed to know what he was talking about, particularly regarding his experience as Massachusetts governor with health care and education.

Democrat Pam Romero, a Safeway butcher from East San Jose whose 12-year-old granddaughter plays on the Crossfire soccer team in San Jose, said she thought Romney won the debate big-time, displaying some of the same characteristics that Obama had used to win her over four years ago.

"The way Romney worded everything just sounded better than Obama -- and I voted for Obama because of the way he spoke," Romero said.

Still, she doesn't know if the debate changed her mind.

"I still like Obama,'' Romero said. "In fact, I love him.''

Staff writer Julia Prodis Sulek contributed to this report. Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.