Pre-Fight Jitters

Obama Aides Nervous as President Plots Course for Second Debate

As the president preps for a comeback, sources close to the action fret about the right mix of offense and defense—and how he could be running out of chances. James Warren reports.

10.15.12 8:21 PM ET

President Obama’s debate team is clearly anxious that a second poor performance could seriously hurt him among undecided or “soft” Obama supporters,” despite history suggesting that presidential debates rarely impact an election.

The reelection team saw a clear turn in polling and momentum after the first debate in Denver. Two sources close to the debate preparations says the president is still in very good shape in key states, including Ohio—but deem the second of three confrontations with Mitt Romney as critical to the president’s reelection chances.

One source even harkened to the 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. An uninspired Carter performance hurt him badly with many soft Carter supporters and was seen as one catalyst to the loss of an eight-point lead a month from the election.

A second sub-par performance by the president, said this insider, could mean, “our psychology of inevitability is almost over.”

The Obama camp has, not surprisingly, spent a large amount of time plotting the mix of performance skills, tone, and substantive policy needed to take maximum advantage of the town-hall format—a setting vastly different from a traditional debate.

Those in the audience will have been selected by the Gallup organization as “undecided” voters. Some top aides on both sides are privately dubious about how many truly undecided voters remain but concede that 5 percent or slightly more of the electorate is leaning weakly to either candidate and is susceptible to change. The Obama camp remains chagrined by their candidate’s failure to rebut adequately what they consider a flurry of false statements made by Romney during the Denver face-off. In addition, Romney’s decision to tack to the middle during that debate—in what these sources see as a dishonest moderation of positions the Republican took during the primary campaign—continues to rankle the Obama camp.

Some privately deride the media for not being vigilant enough in bringing those inconsistencies and misstatements to the surface, even as they arguably lose sight of a more overarching reality: a proliferation of fact-checking by the press simply has had little effect on a highly-polarized electorate.

“The news media has been letting [Romney] get away with murder,” one source said.

The performance challenges for Obama, insiders say, include being respectful of both the audience and Romney while aggressively arguing that the Republican has disingenuously tacked to the middle on various issues, such as health care.

Two sources close to the preparations said that the president will seek to make a string of points about his tenure and plans for the future in an upbeat fashion—while at the same time unabashedly and firmly contending that his opponent has not been telling the truth.

“He can’t come off looking as if he’s engaged in a dramatic, mano a mano confrontation with Romney,” said one source, who requested anonymity discussing sensitive matters. “But even if he doesn’t keep turning around and looking him square in the eye, he’s got to tell those people at the town hall that they must understand there are differences not just in policy but veracity and that those all could impact their individual lives.”

Eric Adelstein, a Chicago-based Democratic political consultant who is not close to the preparations, concurred about Obama’s central challenge. He finds errant the speculation among some pundits that Obama might tread cautiously so as not to come off as belligerent or unduly harsh.

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“Romney got the media to change its narrative, from ‘time to write him off’ to, ‘well, we may now have a horse race.’ Whether he did it by dissembling or being a new Mitt, the effect was the same,” said Adelstein.

“But the reality is that Romney still trails, especially in battleground states,” he said. “So Tuesday is important because, first, Romney can turn the ‘my campaign is not over narrative’ into ‘I can actually win.’ Second, Obama can seize back the ‘it’s close to over’ narrative by making clear, ‘Those guys just aren’t believable and their policies will set us back.’”

It’s safe to assume that virtually every possible Obama gambit is being chewed over by the Romney camp. To that extent, said one White House insider, it will be interesting to see if Romney proves as good a counterpuncher as he occasionally proved during the many Republican primary debates.