COLUMBUS, Ohio — His tepid debate performance has turned a September surge into an October swoon, and President Obama has traded his campaign swagger for a more urgent posture, insisting to supporters that he will finish strong and calling on them to step up as well.
After a weekend trip heavy with fundraising stops, Obama returned to more traditional campaigning Tuesday in Ohio, the state that his team has long viewed as a potential bulwark against Mitt Romney. It was his 30th trip there since taking office and the 15th in 2012.
The president’s first order of business Tuesday evening: asking students on the Ohio State University campus to register and vote. The event was timed to coincide with the deadline for voter registration, and Obama told a crowd of 15,000 that buses would be ready to take them from the event to an early-voting location.
“Don’t wait. Do not delay. Go vote today,” Obama urged. “We’ve got some work to do. We’ve got an election to win. Everything that we fought for in 2008 is on the line in 2012.”
Just before Air Force One had touched down in Ohio, bad news surfaced in the form of a new CNN poll that showed him with a lead of 4 percentage points there. That was half the lead he held in pre-debate polls in Ohio.
Nationally, a Gallup tracking poll Tuesday showed Romney with a 2-percentage-point edge among likely voters — a measure that, as with the Ohio poll, was within the margin of error and suggests a tossup contest. Before Wednesday’s first debate, Obama had been steadily building a lead in surveys nationally and in key states.
Aides said that the tightening numbers were not a cause for panic. The success of the Democratic convention to start September and Romney’s missteps in the weeks after — most notably the release of a surreptitiously recorded video showing him dismissing 47% of Americans as irresponsible people who consider themselves “victims” — pushed the president’s level of support to or very near his ceiling in the earlier surveys, they argued. And they suggested that he has often rebounded when under pressure.
Still, campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged that Obama planned to shift his approach at the second debate next Tuesday.
“The president has been pretty clear that he’s looked back at his debate performance and looked back at the debate performance of Mitt Romney, and he’ll take that into account moving forward,” Psaki said.
Obama himself indicated, in his demeanor and in his public comments during a West Coast fundraising swing this weekend, that last week’s debate was a setback. On Sunday, at a star-studded concert in Los Angeles, Obama acknowledged in public for the first time that his performance was far from “flawless.”
On Monday he let on that he’d had no shortage of advice since the debate, with many he’s spoken with pleading, “Don’t be so polite.” An audience of more than 6,000 in San Francisco erupted when Obama shared the sentiment; at times, attendees could be heard shouting at him to “Give him hell” in his next face-off with Romney.
Some of the concerns expressed to the president may have come from his most prominent financial supporters. At a more exclusive event in the Bay Area, the president reassured them: “I am pretty competitive, and I very much intend to win this election.”
“I’m a big believer in closing the deal,” he said Sunday to a similar high-dollar crowd in Los Angeles.
Yet how best to respond to his listless showing appears to be a challenge. Aides first focused on Romney’s aggressive demeanor, calling it “testy.” Then they stopped just short of accusing the Republican nominee of outright lies in the debate, and accused him of lurching to the center by seemingly rejecting his own tax plan that Democrats claim would cost $5 trillion without any clear revenue offsets.
“I want everybody to understand something: What was being presented wasn’t leadership. That’s salesmanship,” Obama said Sunday night of Romney’s performance.
The Obama campaign also aired a sarcastic television ad featuring Big Bird that hit Romney for suggesting an end to government subsidies for public television, which airs “Sesame Street.” “I like PBS. I love Big Bird … but I’m not going to keep on spending money on things, and borrow money from China to pay for it,” Romney had said.
On Tuesday, the Republican dismissed the ad as a distraction.
“These are tough times with real serious issues, so you have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,” Romney told a crowd that gathered in a wind-swept field in Van Meter, Iowa. “I actually think we need to have a president who talks about saving the American people and saving good jobs and saving our future, and also saving the family farm.”
Another spot released Tuesday reinforced in a more serious way the Obama camp’s concerns about Romney’s new momentum. That ad, airing in swing states, links Romney to running mate Rep. Paul D. Ryan’s proposal to cut back spending on Medicaid. The cuts would “burden families with the cost of nursing home care,” the ad said, picking up on a line of attack former President Clinton stressed when he made the case for Obama at the Democratic National Convention.
The ad also indicated that the Obama campaign views Thursday’s vice presidential debate as an opportunity to get back on track.
Top campaign strategist David Axelrod, as long planned, has been presiding since last weekend over practice sessions for Vice President Joe Biden at a hotel near Biden’s home in Delaware. Senior White House counselor David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s 2008 campaign, left the president’s side Monday to join them.
A Biden aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to candidly reflect on strategy, said they viewed Ryan as being “in a box.”
“He has been the face of Republican policies for years,” making it potentially difficult for him to follow Romney’s lead in taking a more centrist position, the aide said.
Obama himself will return to more intensive preparations for next Tuesday’s meeting, a town-hall format, this weekend in Williamsburg, Va.
Romney also is expected to more intensively prepare in coming days, but on Tuesday he was in Iowa and Ohio, both battleground states.
Speaking on a stage set with hay bales and bunting that was flanked by two huge tractors, Romney touted his plan to roll back regulations that he said had burdened family farms. He noted that he would permanently eliminate the estate tax — a popular position here.
“We ought to kill the death tax. You paid for that farm once, you shouldn’t have to pay for it again,” Romney said to cheers.
“Now and then a farm is successful enough to save a little money. And when you do save your money, the president has this idea of raising your taxes a lot on your savings, your interest and dividends and capital gains, if you’re lucky enough to have them,” he went on. “My view is that if you’re making $200,000 a year and less, you should pay no tax whatsoever on interest, dividends or capital gains.”
Memoli reported from Ohio and Reston from Iowa.
Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.