DENVER – Obama advisers admitted Thursday that the president delivered a lackluster performance in the first presidential debate, and said that the campaign would tweak its strategy, which centered on taking a calm and cautious approach to Mitt Romney, for the next one.
An animated Romney set the terms of the 90-minute debate at the University of Denver Wedneday and stayed on offense, while Obama avoided delivering the sharpest attacks his campaign has used against the Republican nominee – on his private-equity career, his offshore bank accounts, his attack on 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes as moochers, and more.
Neither did Obama hit Romney on his conservative social views or history of shifting positions on the issues.
David Axelrod, the president’s senior political strategist, said on a conference call with campaign reporters that Obama is “very, very eager” to confront Romney again.
“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 move forward, and not to get into serial fact-checking with Gov. Romney, which can be an exhausting, never-ending pursuit,” Axelrod said.
In the future, Axelrod said, the campaign would have to adjust to Romney’s “artful dodger” routine.
“The campaign, like the President, offered no defense of the President’s first term record or vision for a second term, and instead, offered nothing but false attacks, petulant statements, and lies about Governor Romney’s record,” responded Amanda Henneberg, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign.
Incumbent presidents often are perceived as the losers of the first debate of a general-election campaign, either because they seek to appear “presidential” and to avoid mistakes, or because their debate skills have grown rusty in the White House bubble.
Most analysts say that the only incumbent in recent history to score a first debate “win” was President Bill Clinton, who bested Robert Dole in 1996. President Jimmy Carter stumbled in his first 1980 debate, as did Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1992 and his son, George W. Bush in 2004.
Obama seemed to wake up to the challenge during a morning rally Thursday at a Denver park, attacking Romney for fuzzing up what he called tax and budgetary policies that favor the wealthy. “If you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth,” Obama said.