Sabato moves Virginia out of Obama’s column, but spins like a top on the presidential debates

Larry Sabato’s most recent broadside on the state of the presidential race largely tells us what we already know: the President had a terrible first debate and the momentum is now with Mitt Romney.

But the good Professor goes a bit farther, calling the President’s performance “historically bad.” Enough so that he’s made some tweaks to his electoral map, including Virginia:

We’re also moving Virginia back from leans Democratic to toss-up. We know that the Obama campaign has long fretted about Virginia, understanding that the 2008 Obama vote was no predictor of 2012 success in the Old Dominion. There’s no longer any compelling justification that Obama has the advantage here. We could see it going to either candidate by a point or two or three.

For Sabato, whose electoral map still shows Obama narrowly winning in November, this is akin to a tectonic shift. Only a few weeks ago, he was predicting that because the economy wasn’t all that bad, voters were likely to give the President another four years to really screw things up fully implement his agenda.

And, in a bit of twist that would make David Axelrod proud, the Professor has this to say about the next presidential debate:

Given that the debate will be a town hall, the format may be somewhat better for the president than the last debate. And keep this in mind: The press had an incentive before the first debate to report Romney as a winner in order to keep the race competitive. This time, though, much of the media may be inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt: After all, what’s better than a comeback story? Plus, after Obama’s abysmal showing, the expectations for him are far lower for this debate than last time, and the expectations for Romney much higher.

The idea that the old line press, which has spent the last four years acting as an in-kind contribution to the Obama re-elect campaign, somehow wanted a Romney win in the first debate is laughable. Romney’s performance blindsided them. At the time, Sabato was trying to downplay the debate, going so far as to say that few of those who said they would watch actually do, and even those who did tune in don’t necessarily change their minds.

Perhaps so. But the numbers afterward showed it was the most-watched presidential debate since 1980. And the polls did move.

Sabato & Co. say the vice presidential debate tonight won’t matter much in the larger scheme of things. This has been true historically, and unless something truly bizarre happens tonight (always a possibility when Joe Biden is within 100 yards of a hot mic), it will probably be true again.

Still, more people will likely tune in than in previous years, and in the wake of the Administration’s disintegrating Libyan fairytale, bizarre may be exactly what we get.