The panic subsides in The People's Republic of Cambridge

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief go up in Central Square in Cambridge on Wednesday morning. It was safe to go out and smell the latte again.

Here at the exact emotional epicenter of Obamaland - that would be the dairy section at Whole Foods - came a desperately needed natural remedy. The president, just about everyone agreed, had gotten the better of his opponent, Mitt Romney, in Tuesday night's testosterone-fest of a debate. It looked like Barack Obama might be back.

"I feel much better," said Rose Caudillo. Like other Obama supporters, she was amazed - and distressed - at the president's soporific performance in his first debate with Romney. This time, "he did a great job," she said. "I hope undecided voters see that."

If the president could fully grasp the pain his first debate performance brought to the People's Republic, he'd be standing on the corner of Putnam and Mass Avenue handing out gluten-free cookies by way of apology.

Since that first contest, on Oct. 3, the Cambridge liberals have been practically crying into their craft beers. Here was their guy, a guy who is all about soaring rhetoric, making like a wax-museum replica as Romney let fly with dodgy accusations and position shifts. Obama lost the debate, and his lead in the polls.

Panic ensued.

"I was very upset about those polls," said Fay Mittleman, an unemployed social worker drinking coffee at Starbucks. "I knew there was a chance he'd lose his leverage from that one debate. I felt very badly."

Schuyler Engel couldn't even make it through that first debate.

"Debates are for people who vote on how people appear," she said, taking a break from registering voters near the T station. "I panicked because I knew Obama wasn't selling it to them."

Before that first debate, Engel, a volunteer for Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for Senate, had a ready case to make to undecided voters: "I was arguing that since Obama was going to win, he needs the Senate majority to get things done," she said. "I don't use that argument now."

As upset as Obama supporters here have been, there's not much they can do: Even a wax replica of the president would beat Romney in Massachusetts. We know the former governor too well to vote for him.

"We're all very anxious, but we can't affect the election here," said Katharine Black, an Episcopal priest. "We can only give money."

As several people said yesterday, they live in a bubble. Cambridge looks pretty foreign to much of the country. And among the faithful here, the puzzlement goes both ways.

"I really don't understand undecided voters at all," Caudillo said.

(I'm kind of mystified myself: Even with Romney's presto-change-o routines, the choice is pretty stark at this point, unless you've been living in a box.)

There are other cultural gaps.

"I don't think religion has a place in politics," said Judy Lippard, selecting yams at Whole Foods. "But there is this whole area of the country that is ultra-conservative. It's very disturbing."

Still, a few in the bubble allowed themselves some optimism yesterday.

"He's renewed our faith in him," Lippard said of the president.

Others will remain traumatized until Nov. 6, and possibly beyond.

"I'm going to canvas in New Hampshire," Engel said. "I'm that scared."


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