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President Obama accused his rival Thursday of cracking down on 'Sesame Street,’ but not Wall Street.

Doug Mills, New York Times

Obama comes out swinging as he seeks new approach

  • Article by: DAVID NAKAMURA
  • Washington Post
  • October 5, 2012 - 12:10 AM

President Obama sought to put a sluggish debate performance behind him Thursday with a pair of combative speeches in swing states, as his campaign advisers acknowledged that he would have to change his approach before meeting Republican nominee Mitt Romney again on a national stage.

With a passion that was notably lacking Wednesday night, Obama tore into his rival on Thursday. "It couldn't have been the real Mitt Romney" at the debate, Obama said at an outdoor rally in Denver, "because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. But the fellow on stage last night said he didn't know anything about that."

The big question of whether the debate shifted the momentum from Obama and turned the race back to a neck-and-neck contest will be unclear for at least several more days.

Obama advisers said the president decided before the debate that he would not fight his rival before a prime-time television audience. They acknowledged that Obama will have to do more in the next debate to defend his record and hold Romney more accountable for his economic proposals.

But a wave of anxiety rippled through the Democratic ranks, with many of Obama's supporters suddenly nervous about their candidate with just over a month left before the election.

Chastened Obama advisers tacitly acknowledged that the president -- whose performance was perceived by many as alternately listless and long-winded -- would do things differently when the candidates meet again Oct. 16 in New York.

Attempting to regain the upper hand, Obama appeared Thursday at campaign rallies in Denver and later in Madison, Wis., in a pair of states critical to his re-election efforts. At both events, Obama roundly criticized Romney as misrepresenting himself and his policies during the debate.

"When asked what he would do to actually cut spending and reduce the deficit, he said he'd eliminate public television funding," Obama told an estimated 30,000 supporters at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Let me get this straight, he won't get rid of regulations on Wall Street but he's going to crack down on Sesame Street?"

Obama's high spirits on the stump the day after the debate belied his listless demeanor of the previous night. The president's campaign faced an onslaught of questions about the performance, chiefly: What happened? And why hadn't he said the critical things he did Thursday when he had a television audience of nearly 60 million people watching?

'Talk to the American people'

"He made a choice last night to answer the questions that were asked and to talk to the American people about what we need to do to move forward and not get into serial fact-checking with Governor Romney, which can be a tiring pursuit," said David Axelrod, a senior campaign adviser.

But he acknowledged that "I'm sure we will make adjustments," adding later that "we have to strike a balance."

"You can't allow someone to stand there and manhandle the truth about your record and theirs," Axelrod said.

He said of Romney: "What we learned is that he'll say anything. That makes him effective in the short term but vulnerable in the long run."

David Plouffe, a senior adviser, said the president will change his approach for the next debate. "We are obviously going to have to adjust for the fact of Mitt Romney's dishonesty," he said.

A question of votes

For much of his presidency, Obama has battled an impression that he is an aloof leader. How willing he is to fight for his policies remains a mystery to some of his party's leaders. Often looking down or smiling thinly during a Romney critique, Obama appeared out of sorts for much of the debate, irritated by the attacks and uncertain in his responses to them.

The showing appeared so out of character for an orator of Obama's ability that the theories to explain it Thursday sometimes bordered on the bizarre. Some supporters offered that the president had been flustered by Romney's deceit or that perhaps he had been pacing himself knowing that two more debates remain.

Although Obama's debate performance energized the Romney camp, how many votes it will change is unknown. In Columbus, Ohio, a key state in the race, the debate brought consternation to Obama supporters and reassurance to Romney backers. Few switched sides.

"He was very well-spoken," Obama supporter Jenna Kaun, 31, said of Romney. "But he didn't go into details." Kaun watched the debate with her husband -- a rare undecided voter. By the end, she still planned to vote for Obama and he remained undecided.

James Reid, 34, an aircraft mechanic, said he wished that the best ideas of both candidates could be found in a third candidate. For now, the son and grandson of Ford Motor workers from Detroit said he'll vote for Obama. "When Romney said, 'Let Detroit go bankrupt,' he lost my vote at that," Reid said. "He's a businessman, and that's who he's looking out for."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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