DENVER -- President Barack Obama is retooling after getting thumped by Mitt Romney in Wednesday's debate.
Obama played it too safe -- but he won't at the next debate on Oct. 16 and in the lead-up to it, his top advisers said on Thursday -- a tacit admission that Obama let himself become a punching bag for Romney.
The Obama team was not quite in a panic -- but they know they have to get more serious. As one person in the Obama orbit put it, "the question is now going to be, can Obama throw a punch that will land -- or will it be one that Mitt can push aside?"
Here's the situation:
1. Obama's team was braced for his poor performance. They've been to this movie before.
Obama blew his first Democratic primary debates in his 2008 campaign and on Wednesday was just too rusty at the podium--which he is not used to sharing with someone who is not his equal.
To remedy this, there will be more extensive preparation for Obama before the next showdown -- now much higher stakes for Obama -- at Hofstra University. Obama will set up debate camp at the end of next week in Williamsburg, Va.
Obama may not be adding more rehearsal time -- but as senior adviser David Axelrod says, he's going to be more strategic about how he uses it.
And on Obama's debate sparring partner -- Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who wants to be secretary of state in a second Obama term -- with his future in the balance, will he be able to be more aggressive and push back against Obama now that Romney has shown his stuff?
2. Obama and his team made a tactical decision -- in error it turned out -- to not strongly confront Romney when he made what they consider misleading statements or lies.
To remedy this, Obama and his team -- starting Thursday morning at a rally here -- is going to be much more aggressive in calling Romney out. Watch for even harder-hitting ads from the campaign and allied SuperPAC.
"When I got onto the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney," Obama said in a mocking tone at an outdoor rally with a friendly crowd.
"But it -- but it couldn't have been Mitt Romney 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. The fellow onstage last night said he didn't know anything about that."
David Plouffe, a White House senior adviser who managed Obama's 2008 campaign, said
going forward, "We obviously are going to have to adjust for the fact of Mitt Romney's dishonesty. So that's something we have to basically make sure people understand."
Senior adviser David Axelrod in a briefing call with reporters, discussing the strategy shifts, said Obama "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 to get into serial fact-checking with Gov. Romney, which can be an exhausting, never-ending pursuit.
"But obviously, moving forward, you know, we're going to take a hard look at this and we're going to -- and we're going to have to make some judgments as to where to draw the lines in these debates and how to use -- how to use our time.
"In terms of changes and such, these things are always -- you know, it's like a -- it's like a -- playoffs in sports. You evaluate after every contest and you make adjustments, and I'm sure that we will make adjustments. I don't see us adding huge amounts of additional prep time. I think there are some strategic judgments that have to be made, and we'll make them."
3. Style counts. Obama didn't look good. Romney did. The Republican National Committee whipped up a video released Thursday morning entirely devoted to Obama's supposed "smirk" during part of the debate.
To remedy this, the Obama team for starters is studying the debate tape for its performance aspects. They know Obama has to be the guy you want to have a beer with.
"He didn't view it, perhaps as much as Gov. Romney did, as a performance," Axelrod said. "And, you know, I readily concede that that's not the president's strong suit in these -- in these events. . . .
I'm sure that he will consider his approach moving forward."