President Barack Obama found a new opponent: “The guy playing Mitt Romney last night.”
Obama yesterday tried to regain his campaign footing by going on the attack against his Republican challenger, an offensive supporters and Democratic strategists said he should have taken during his first debate with Romney. For his part, Romney said the president’s new approach showed Obama recognized he didn’t do well in the confrontation.
“Obviously the president wasn’t happy with the response to our debate last night,” Romney told Fox News television host Sean Hannity yesterday. The challenger said the debate gave him the opportunity to describe “what I want to do to help the American people.”
While Obama’s debate performance had his campaign advisers retooling their strategy for the final stretch before Election Day, Romney found fresh momentum after weeks in which Obama held a lead in polls nationally and in pivotal states that will decide the contest.
“The American people do not want higher taxes; they want less spending and more growth,” Romney said at an evening rally of about 10,000 supporters in Fishersville, Virginia, where he appeared with his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. “I don’t want to raise taxes on anybody.”
Obama entered the debate at the University of Denver ahead of Romney 49 percent to 43 percent among likely voters in a Bloomberg National Poll that was conducted Sept. 21-24. Gallup’s daily tracking poll for the first three days of October showed the president’s approval rating at 54 percent, the highest it’s been in three years.
Polls conducted immediately after the Oct. 3 debate by CNN and CBS News showed voters, by margins of more than 2-1, thought Romney had won the encounter.
Obama “should have been a little stronger” in the debate, said Janis Anton, a 61-year-old church assistant who was among about 30,000 people who turned out at an Obama rally yesterday at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “He could have called Romney on a couple things.”
David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser, said Romney’s “theatrically aggressive performance” won’t change the minds of voters in Ohio, Nevada or Virginia, three of the eight to 10 states that are the focus of both campaigns and where Obama has led in polls. The three combined have 37 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House, and no Republican has been elected president without carrying Ohio.
“Is he going to take the lead in Ohio?” Plouffe said to reporters traveling with Obama from Denver to Madison yesterday. “If he doesn’t, he’s not going to be president.”
Still, Obama’s campaign advisers indicated they would be shifting gears following the debate.
“You evaluate after every contest and you make adjustments,” Obama strategist David Axelrod told reporters on a conference call yesterday. “And I’m sure that we will make adjustments.”
While crediting Romney with “a good performance,” he said the campaign doesn’t plan to have Obama drill more. “I don’t see us adding huge amounts of additional prep time,” he said.
Axelrod, on the conference call, and Obama at his rallies in Denver and Madison signaled their new approach would be questioning Romney’s truthfulness in the debate. They accused the Republican of running away from the positions he staked out during the primaries and concealing details of his policy plans.
‘Man on Stage’
At both of yesterday’s rallies, Obama repeatedly referred to his debate opponent as “the guy playing Mitt Romney.”
“The man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year,” Obama, 51, said at a rally in a Denver park. “And that’s because he knows full well that we don’t want what he’s been selling for the last year.”
Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist, said the Obama campaign seemed unprepared for Romney to present himself as “the moderate governor of Massachusetts.”
“They were thinking Romney was self-destructing so they thought let Romney be Romney, don’t get into the fray,” he said.
In keeping with the new message, Obama’s campaign released a television ad featuring a clip of Romney at the debate denying that he favors a $5 trillion tax-cut plan, followed by quotes from fact-checkers that contradict him.
“If we can’t trust him here, how can we ever trust him here?” the narrator says of Romney as the image changes from the debate stage to the Oval Office.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said the Obama campaign was “in full damage-control mode.” Obama “offered no defense of his record and no vision for the future.”
Romney, 65, stuck to his message from the debate.
“Trickle-down government will not create the jobs Americans need. Trickle-down government will not bring down the cost of energy,” Romney said during an impromptu stop at a gathering of the Colorado Conservative Political Action Committee in Denver. “The consequence for doing it right versus doing it wrong is really extraordinary.”
On the Hannity show, Romney again expressed regret over his comments -- revealed in clandestinely taped remarks to donors -- that he regarded 47 percent of the American people as “victims” who depend on government handouts.
“Now and then, you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right,” Romney said. “In this case, I said something that was just completely wrong.”
Working to stay on the offensive, Romney’s campaign released three new television ads to air in politically competitive states, one attacking the president’s record on deficits, and two making a case for Romney as an alternative.
“President Obama says he’s creating jobs, but he’s really creating debt,” one commercial says. “He’s not just borrowing money; he’s borrowing it and wasting it.”
In another ad to air in Nevada, former National Basketball Association player Greg Anthony tells how he voted for Obama in 2008, thinking he would be a centrist, and now backs Romney.
The campaign also released a spot to run in Ohio in which Romney, speaking directly to the camera, talks about unemployment under Obama and says the state’s “families can’t afford four more years like the last four years.”
Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said Obama’s performance shows the pitfalls of the “bubble” he lives in at the White House, with people who are mostly afraid to challenge him.
Obama held back during the debate and he appeared to be “uninterested,” Rothenberg said. “He wasn’t very passionate about anything. The Romney campaign needs to take advantage of his win or else this will be one blip on the radar screen.”
Anton, the Wisconsin voter, said Obama has two more debates and many campaign events left to be more assertive.
“There’s a lot more than just this one debate,” Anton said.