There's nothing quite as suspenseful as the opening moments of the first presidential debate: After months of watching Barack Obama and Mitt Romney lob verbal haymakers at each other from afar, millions of viewers finally get to see them square off face-to-face.

So it was a refreshing -- even exhilarating -- sight on Wednesday: Two political gladiators, on the same stage, going mano a mano under the unstinting glare of TV lights.

But thanks to some restrictive rules and a horrendous job of moderating by public television's Jim Lehrer, the event only occasionally made for good TV. It most certainly lacked the freewheeling, explosive nature of the Republican clashes we witnessed during the primary season.

Upward of 50 million viewers -- or twice the audience for the conventions -- were expected to be planted on their couches for the debate. What they saw were a president appropriately attired in blue tie and challenger in red (in case some couldn't tell them apart).

Things started off cordially enough, with Obama wishing wife Michelle -- his "sweetie" -- a happy 20th anniversary. Romney, not typically known for a sense of humor, produced laughs by telling the president, "I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me!"

Both men arrived well equipped in terms of facts and figures, trying to own the camera and come across as alpha dog. Romney, realizing he's behind in the polls, clearly was the aggressor -- energetic, conversational and crisp. Obama, meanwhile, was more professorial than personable.

Unfortunately, the showdown lacked in fresh material as both men predominantly rehashed talking points that we've been hearing for months. A major part of the problem was Lehrer. The PBS anchor tried to provoke specifics about the economy, health care and domestic policy, but too often lost control of the action, allowing the candidates to talk over him, abuse their time limits and dance around the issues.

Lehrer has excelled at such forums in the past, but on Wednesday came across as a doddering codger waving his cane in vain. You could imagine viewers everywhere screaming at their TV set and demanding the moderator get some backbone. If there was a loser on the night, it was Lehrer. NFL replacement refs have shown more control.

Also, viewers looking for that one, tantalizing, in-your-face zinger, and/or outrageous blunder most likely came away disappointed. Such a game-changing moment never came. As for stagecraft, both candidates could use some improvements for their next go-round. Obama needs to look more into the camera and not so much at his notepad, and Romney could be a lot less smirky.

As for the moderator, how about giving him a whistle or a game-show like buzzer?

Read Chuck Barney's TV blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv and follow him at http://twitter.com/chuckbarney.