After Barack Obama was beaten by Mitt Romney in Denver, his top advisers could barely mask their gloom. They skulked into the spin room late and tried to dress up a clear loss with complaints about Romney’s prevarications. In short order, most Obama surrogates openly conceded their candidate’s defeat, a rarity in a profession that requires one-sided sunniness.
So it was no surprise that Obama’s top brass was exultant after the President’s feisty effort at the second presidential debate Tuesday night, lauding his “dominant” performance and predicting it would help invigorate dispirited supporters and solidify the campaign’s narrow advantage in the handful of battleground states that will decide the election.
“If the election were held today, I’m as confident as anything I’ve been in my life, that we would win the election,” Obama’s senior adviser David Plouffe told reporters Tuesday night as the President’s motorcade sped away from the debate site in Hempstead, N.Y.
One of the President’s strongest moments, Plouffe argued, was the thrust-and-parry over the Obama Administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. After Romney castigated the President for not immediately characterizing the assault on the Benghazi compound as an “act of terror,” Obama retorted that he did in fact use the phrase in his first remarks about the tragedy, made in the Rose Garden the day after the attack. (You can read the transcript here.) Obama used the exchange to lecture Romney about executive responsibility.
“The president looked like a strong and resolute commander in chief,” Plouffe said, while Romney “looked like a political candidate playing politics.” The Benghazi issue may still prove problematic for Obama, who saw his foreign-policy approval ratings drop in the wake of the attack, but he did appear to score the political point at the Hempstead town hall.
Obama’s aides also said he successfully painted Romney’s economic policies as a return to the supply-side economics championed by previous Republican Presidents, replete with “sketchy” budget math. As Obama argued, Romney is “more conservative than President Bush” in policy areas like immigration, said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. Both she and Plouffe said the debate crystallized the incumbent’s advantage among women, who make up a majority of undecided voters in battleground states and, they claimed, would be put off by Romney’s positions on abortion and pay equality. “I don’t think women at home watched [the debate] and thought, That’s the guy who’s going to fight for me in the White House,” Psaki said.
It’s an open question how Obama’s combative approach Tuesday night will play. Pundits scolded both candidates for the debate’s fractious tone, suggesting the interruptions and testy crosstalk could alienate voters that both sides are courting. But Plouffe dismissed the notion that uncommitted voters would be miffed by the sight of the two candidates squabbling.”My sense is the American people probably liked that display, they liked that passion,” he said. “Whoever wins this election will have their handprint on our country’s future in a very, very significant way. So this is worth fighting for.”
Obama’s campaign aides have conceded Romney made gains in the polls based on his stellar showing in Denver. But they say the debate merely accelerated the tightening of a race they always envisioned to be a nail-biter at the end. “He captured a bunch of Republican-leaning independents,” Plouffe said. “So this is the race we expected all along.”
“When we were up in some public polls in September in battleground states by eight or 10 points, it was like fantasy,” he added. “These battleground states are going to be decided by one, two, three, four points at most.”
The Denver debacle touched off rounds of recriminations among Democratic supporters, and it’s clear that the underlying message — show some fight — seeped in. Advisers skirted questions about whether the President had prepared differently this time. “He reviewed clips,” Psaki said. “As you know, he looked back at his own performance, and obviously you take that into account as you’re preparing for the next debate, and that’s probably part of the difference.” She said that Obama’s team was ebullient watching the rematch. “There was a lot of whooping and clapping in the staff office watching the President’s performance,” Psaki said.
Thus begins a frantic three-week scramble to Nov. 6. During the final sprint, both sides will pull every lever at their disposal — from door-knocking and phone banking to a deluge of paid advertising — to mobilize their bases and make their closing arguments to the tiny sliver of uncommitted voters who remain. “Our sense is we’re being smarter about approaching those undecided voters than Romney is in terms of the allocation of our resources,” Plouffe said.
“We’ve got one more debate, we’ve got 21 more days,” he added. “We’ve got to execute strong here in the close.”
With reporting by Michael Scherer