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Debate changes race's dynamics

Published: Friday, Oct. 5, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 - 12:12 pm

DENVER – President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney confronted what one feared, and the other hoped, was an altered campaign Thursday, pounding new urgency into what was shaping up as a wide-open final sprint to Election Day.

A day after the first debate, in which Obama was almost universally judged to have underperformed and Romney to have seized his opportunity, the president resolved to do what he did not do the night before: He went straight at the challenger with a forceful argument that Romney's words of moderation masked extreme conservative policies.

"The man onstage 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," the president said at a rally in Denver, looking far more energetic than he was at his lectern Wednesday night.

Romney's senior aides warned staff members and donors that the race was hardly won. But they said the debate reversed the sagging morale of volunteers and contributors and dispelled what had been a growing notion that the race was slipping away from Romney.

They said it prompted undecided voters to give Romney "a second look," as his pollster Neil Newhouse put it. And they said it showed that Romney could win a head-to-head argument with Obama on the economy, his campaign's underlying strategy all along.

With roughly a month left, both sides were looking ahead to this morning, when the government releases unemployment and job creation numbers for September, the next opportunity for one of the candidates to try to set a narrative for the final month.

Reflecting the new intensity of the post-debate landscape, both sides escalated their advertising campaigns in swing states, drew huge crowds for rallies and recalibrated their strategies.

Greeted by an estimated 10,000 people in Fishersville, Va., Romney said, "What you didn't hear last night from the president is why it is the next four years are possibly going to be better than the last four years."

Obama went to Madison, Wis., where he was met by an estimated 30,000, the biggest of the campaign so far. In a display of strength intended to offset Democratic nervousness, Obama's campaign signaled that it had raised well over $114 million in September, its biggest one-month haul this year and a sum that all but ensures its ability to match or exceed advertising and get-out-the-vote spending by Romney and his allies.

But that did not overcome the rain of questions about how it came to be that the president delivered such a listless showing. Obama's aides said he knew he had had a bad night as soon as he came off the stage at the University of Denver.

"I'm sure he drew some lessons from it," said David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser.

Advisers, many of whom viewed him as distracted and nervous from the beginning, said he had approached the debate practice sessions without enough urgency and focus. He has told friends that he respects Romney's intellect but has come to view his rival as a less formidable adversary as he has learned more about him from reading research books and summaries of his record.

Hours before the debate, advisers said they were worried that during his preparation sessions in a financially distressed resort in Nevada he was frequently interrupted by his presidential duties, and indicated they were nervous that he was underprepared. What seemed like an exercise in lowering expectations appeared to be reality at the end of the night.

Axelrod said the president was prepared to talk about what was viewed as Obama's biggest omission Wednesday, Romney's secretly recorded comments at a closed-door fundraising event about the "47 percent" of Americans he described as too reliant on government.

While Axelrod said Obama simply never found an opportunity, another aide offered another suggestion: To have done so would have given Romney an opening to undo the political damage of the remarks with a certain, planned answer before a huge television audience of 67.2 million. A Romney official expressed disappointment that he had not gotten that chance.

In an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News late Thursday, Romney said he would have said, "I said something that's just completely wrong." He had previously stood by the substance of the remarks, which he said were stated inelegantly.

In general, advisers suggested that Obama had prepared for a different Mitt Romney, one who had promoted a conservative message to the Republican base this year and chosen a running mate with a plan to cut deeply into government spending. Instead, he was confronted by a candidate using a softer tone, promising that he would provide plenty of money for education and saying that his tax plan would not reduce the share of taxes paid by the wealthy.

Some of the weaknesses in the president's performance, advisers said, were the result of a strategy of not turning off the narrow slice of swing voters, who are often repelled by personal confrontations.

And, they said, he had been expecting the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, to ask more pointed questions of both candidates, which would have at least done some of the work for him.

Both sides agreed that the evening was likely to rejuvenate Romney's fundraising and send wealthy donors back to the super PACs that have been supporting Romney all year. Before Wednesday the campaigns were watching carefully for signs that the big money would move into House and Senate races as some lost confidence in Romney's likelihood to win.

Several party leaders said the excitement levels for Romney had come back after hitting a low ebb in which the number of volunteers making phone calls and knocking on doors had fallen off.

Aides said they were mostly relieved that Romney could get back on a solid, offensive footing as he makes a case against Obama and, perhaps more vitally, for himself.

Obama's aides said if there was one silver lining in the night it was that they could seize on what they said were inconsistencies between Romney's stances during the primaries and those of this late campaign period.

Obama's campaign made an early decision, however, to campaign against Romney as a conservative, wary that more centrist independent voters could view him as someone who is truly moderate but saying what he has to in order to win.

"He may win the Oscar for his performance last night, but he's not going to win the presidency," Axelrod said.

But, he conceded, what Obama really needs to do is deliver a better debate effort when the two meet next, on Oct. 16, at Hofstra University in New York.

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