The Obama team has apparently determined that the best defense of the president's flat outing last night in Denver is to go on offense, specifically the kind of offense that Obama himself seemed uninterested in prosecuting last night.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finally got to do his full Etch A Sketch last night, portraying himself as a kind-hearted moderate uninterested in cutting taxes on the wealthy, reasonable about regulation, and concerned about the middle class. This portrayal is at odds with the Romney who won the Republican presidential nomination and has spent the time since then appearing to be trying to keep his base happy. Last night he seems to have pulled off a neat two-step of putting a moderate face forward while pleasing his right wing base by delivering a forceful and polished performance. Nothing succeeds, after all, like success.
Senior Obama officials said this morning that the campaign's focus over the next few days will be on highlighting the differences between pre-debate Mitt and debate Mitt.
"The president came to Denver to talk to the American people in an honest and thoughtful way about the challenges we face," strategist David Axelrod told reporters on a conference call. "Governor Romney came to give a performance and he gave a good performance and we give him credit for that. The problem with it was none of it was rooted in fact."
Axelrod pointed specifically to Romney's claims that his tax plan is not a $5 trillion cut, that he supports teachers, and that he could repeal Obamacare but still cover people with pre-existing conditions.
"It was really a very vigorous performance but one that was void of honesty. So today, the day after, I think the question for you, for the American people is really one of character," Axelrod said.
Side note: Raising the character issue reminds me of George H.W. Bush back in 1992. That didn't work out well. And in fact President Bill Clinton advised the Obama campaign months ago against attacking Romney as a flip-flopper. "They tried to do this to me, the flip-flopper thing," Clinton said. "It just doesn't work."
So the big question is how people digest the New Romney after months of the Obama campaign defining him as an out of touch, plutocratic, vulture capitalist disdainful of 47 percent of the population.
Axelrod noted that media instapolls showed that while people thought Romney won the debate, there was little indication it would sway a large number of voters. "There's a fascination with Governor Romney's performance last night," he said. "The reality of how it impacts on voters is a little bit different." We'll see what early next week's polls say.
Axelrod volunteered little about Obama's performance. Asked about it directly, he said that "I'm not a theater critic and I'm not going to jump into that" but added that the president "made a choice last night to answer the questions that were asked" and that he didn't want to challenge Romney more forcefully because he said that "fact checking Governor Romney" can be "exhausting."
He succeeded in that. We'll see whether that leads to larger success.
In any case, as I've pointed out elsewhere, debates rarely change the course of elections. And as of this writing (early Thursday afternoon), Intrade still has Obama as a roughly 2-to-1 favorite for re-election.
- Read the U.S. News Debate: Who Won the First Debate Between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?
- Read Susan Milligan: Was Obama's Lackluster Debate Deliberate?
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.