The most interesting place to have been in America on Thursday morning? Obama campaign headquarters.
No need to guess what the post-debate conversation was in Boston: jubilation over Mitt Romney's wildly impressive Denver performance, and a strategy session on how to keep the momentum. But in Chicago? Amid the gloom, amid the shock, one pained question surely drove the discussion: "What now?"
Because Chicago understands that the immediate critique of Barack Obama's debate performance understates the damage the president did to his campaign. Yes, he was detached. Yes, he was unprepared. Yet those problems can be rectified in future performances. The bigger concern for the campaign is that the president allowed his opponent to dismantle the core planks of its carefully constructed strategy.
The Obama campaign didn't settle on that approach until about July, but once it did, things clicked. Its first objective was to paint Mr. Romney as a disconnected millionaire, with a failed record and discredited ideas, who would bury an already distressed middle class. The second objective was to present Mr. Obama as the reasonable alternative, offering modest but pleasant promises.
The strategy allowed the president to focus anxiety-ridden voters on the Romney bad that might come, and away from the Obama bad of the past four years. With the help of compliant media and a disengaged Mr. Romney, the approach was lulling America.
That is, until Denver, when Mr. Romney exposed for 58 million TV viewers just how fragile the Obama campaign strategy always was. Like the small child in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the Republican stood on the debate stage and declared: "But the Obama has no clothes!" And suddenly, that seemed obvious to everyone.
By pummeling the president on the facts and the policy, Mr. Romney looked in control. By walking through the concepts of growth, of free-market health care, of tax reform, he inspired with ideas. By explaining how his specific policies will help average Americans, and by doing it with a sunny demeanor, he became that likeable candidate.
The effect was not only to erase the months-long Obama caricature of Mr. Romney. It also undermined Mr. Obama's own pitch. The bold Romney vision put the president's (modest, pleasant) promises—for a "balanced approach," for "clean energy," to "invest in education"—in context: small, tired, failed. In outlining the great that might be, Mr. Romney made voters think about how measly the past four years have been. He flipped the Obama equation.
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