DENVER — In 2000, Republican George W. Bush’s campaign made sure the first presidential debate was remembered not for Al Gore’s vigorous attacks on his tax plan but for condescending sighs.
President Obama and his allies are similarly seeking to redefine his first debate on their own terms—not as a limp performance by the Democratic incumbent but as a package of lies by Republican challenger Mitt Romney about his real agenda. Rebranding a debate widely viewed as disastrous is a more daunting challenge than what Bush’s team faced, but the Obama campaign pursued it on Thursday on several fronts, with a harsh television ad that says Romney can’t be trusted and a newly aggressive posture from the president.
“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 next year and that’s because he knows full well that we don’t want what he’s been selling for the last year," Obama said on Thursday at a rally in Denver.
The feisty Obama onstage Thursday was a stark contrast to “President Xanax,” as New York Times columnist Charles Blow called the listless Obama who showed up to debate. Liberal commentators spewed angst across cable and social media throughout the 90-minute ordeal and beyond. Political professionals—strategists and elected officials—were more muted, but did not dispute that Obama had lost the first round. Nor were they short on suggestions.
“He needs to give answers and not ask questions. Define the stakes, not argue on Romney’s terms. And he needs to say the words 47 percent, offshore tax loopholes, auto rescue and tea party,” said Democratic strategist John Michael Gonzalez.
In a phone call with reporters before the rally here, Obama adviser David Axelrod acknowledged that the president needed to make “adjustments” in his debate strategy. But he argued that Romney’s prime-time statements will haunt him in the homestretch of the campaign. Romney never explained how he pays for his tax cuts without blowing up the deficit and he “willfully tried to deceive senior citizens” about his Medicare plan, Axelrod said. He also said the campaign will hold Romney responsible for not explaining what he would put in place after repealing Obama’s plans to overhaul health care and regulate Wall Street. “I don’t think [Romney] helped himself last night with his serial evasions and deceptions," Axelrod said.
What Axelrod didn’t say but didn’t have to: Obama’s tactic of trying to appear presidential and above the partisan fray failed miserably. It’s clear that the president has to challenge Romney much more aggressively on the stump and in the next two debates. “You have strike a balance," Axelrod said. “You can’t stand there and allow someone to manhandle the truth about their record and about yours…. I am sure that is a takeway from this debate.”
It’s not unusual for incumbents to falter in their first reelection debate. Ronald Reagan was off his game when he first faced Walter Mondale in 1984, while George W. Bush got pummeled by John Kerry in their first matchup in 2004. Both presidents came back to win second terms.
“The first debate is hard for an incumbent because no one ever pushes the president around," said longtime Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who advised Reagan. “The American president is obviously treated with great respect and then all of a sudden he’s in a debate forum where someone else is treated as an equal and he’s attacking you.”
Democratic strategist Margie Omero, who watched the debate with 30 female swing voters in Nevada, said neither candidate has sealed the deal. “Plenty of the moms thought the race was a draw, and they want to see more specific information from both candidates about how their tax plans will affect them personally,” she said. “President Obama needs to draw a very clear contrast, talk about his accomplishments, and point out Romney’s inaccuracies.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, one of the only Democratic elected officials who lingered to talk to reporters in the post-debate “spin room,” continued to insist on Thursday that Romney’s strong performance wasn’t a game-changer because he failed to refute Obama’s attack that he will raise taxes on the middle class.
“I don’t believe you’ll see a fundamental change in the dynamics of this race," O’Malley said in a CNN interview. “And I believe the big question that still needs to be answered is Governor Romney’s so-called plan that he won’t let anyone see about how it is that he can cut taxes and revenues by $4 trillion or $5 trillion and somehow tell us to just trust him, because behind Door No. 3, there’s a secret plan and he can’t tell us about it until the election is over.”
Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado predicted negative repercussions for Romney's support for Medicare vouchers and efforts to downplay the size and scope of his tax cuts in the debate.
"He had a good night, but those issues will last and those statements will matter," DeGette said. She nevertheless lamented Obama's lack of a stirring closing statement and failure to use well-honed campaign attack lines against Romney. "He could've been better. I'm sure he will be next time," she said.
Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who comanaged Kerry's 2004 campaign, conceded that Romney prevailed. But he said Obama still holds the upper hand. "The structure has not changed because the country is not waiting to fall in love with Romney like they were for John F. Kennedy or even for Obama last time," Devine said. "Romney now gets a second look, but also more scrutiny of his new policies.”
The Obama campaign wasted no time in promoting that extra scrutiny, of both Romney's policies and his character, in a new ad called "Trust." The spot juxtaposes debate footage of Romney saying he does not have a $5 trillion tax cut plan with news coverage of that plan. The scene shifts from the debate stage to the Oval Office. “If we can’t trust him here, how could we ever trust him here?” the narrator asks.
Chris Frates contributed.