Rattled, dismayed, and shaken, President Obama's national campaign is divided into two camps: impassive warhorses and anxiety-ridden newbies.
The battle-scarred operatives have been doing nonstop psychic triage since the first presidential debate, calming nerves and reassuring the shaken that campaigns have their ups and downs.
"This is the first time in this entire campaign some of the new people have seen a bad run," said a senior Obama strategist. "The veterans are telling them they need to ride it out."
That became a bit easier around noon on Wednesday when the first patch of internal polls came back from key swing states. They revealed that Obama was not in free fall, as some feared, but that his support has returned to where it was in July and August.
"Voters haven't switched from us to him," the strategist said, referring to GOP nominee Mitt Romney. "But they are giving him a second look. They are thinking about him again. The question is, can he [Romney] close the deal."
That was supposed to be Obama's task at the first debate, one he clearly fumbled. Internal Obama swing-state polling now confirms this harsh reality: The president's lackluster performance cost him all of the advantages he built up through the Democratic National Convention and via Romney's now-infamous dismissal of the "47 percent" of the country that he said in a closed-door fundraiser would never vote for him.
In other words, in 90 minutes, Obama flushed a month's worth of convention and 47-percent bounce.
"We were in the lead, but that's all washed away," the president's strategist said. "Now it's up to us to make the case again against him. Most undecideds are making a choice about him, not the president."
Other Obama officials contend the race is still the president's to lose.
"We have all sorts of metric beyond polls," a senior administration official said, referring to fine-grain voter-contact databases and analytics the campaign uses to track supporter concentration, sentiments, enthusiasm, and turnout intensity in battleground states. "We still have substantial on-the-ground advantages. Romney was probably at an artificial low before the debate and we were at an artificial high. Right now, what we're dealing with is the emotive side of our party."
Internal Obama polling data show that all swing states have tightened up and that Romney is within the margin of error in Colorado, Florida, and Virginia. In Ohio, the gap has closed from what was an 8 to 10 point Obama lead to just outside the margin of error. It's now a dogfight across the swing-state battlefield and any sense of pre-debate complacency that some Obama hands feared was creeping into both turnout and fundraising has vanished.
"The debate, obviously, is a turning point," said Ohio state Sen. Eric Kearney, chairman of Obama's statewide campaign. "It's been a healthy exercise in how to regain enthusiasm and momentum. There is now a renewed spirit to pull the oar."
Kearney said that Ohio Democrats took Obama's debate performance as an invitation to rescue the campaign by showing up in larger numbers at phone banks and campaign headquarters across the state.
"The question I hear everywhere is 'What more can we do?' " Kearney said.
Asked if he was surprised by Obama's debate performance—panned widely and lampooned by Saturday Night Live—Kearney demurred.
"I'll skip that one," he said. He did say the sense of urgency among Obama supporters in reaction to the debate belly flop might "be a good thing."
"Everybody's fully engaged now," Kearney said.
As for Obama's prospects in Ohio, Kearney said he always doubted polls showing Romney trailing by as many as 10 points. "I don't believe anyone who worked this race day-to-day here believed the president had that big of a lead," he added.
Obama devoted a lot of time this week to fundraising in California, the last multi-stop fundraising swing of the campaign. Officials said the time was well-spent financially and the official designation of the Cesar Chavez monument was a significant story in Spanish-language media across the country even though it garnered scant mainstream notice.
As for debate prep, all efforts are as they were—just ratcheted up a notch.
"No one blames the president's performance on [Sen.] John Kerry or the debate prep itself," the administration official said.
Obama said he was too "polite" with Romney the first time.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the "stakes are tremendously high" for the second debate.
But top officials said there was no master plan to inject uncertainty into the race to snap volunteers and donors out of a the-race-is-already-won mentality.
"We didn't plan this, but if we can find more energy on the ground, like in Ohio, and remind people how close this is going to be we will extract those gains," the senior administration official said. "But we won't deserve very much credit."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the results of internal polling for the Obama campaign in relation to the margin of error. President Obama's lead in Ohio was found to be just outside the margin of error.