President Barack Obama at a recent grass-roots event in Miami (Vallery Jean/Getty)After President Barack Obama's painfully lackluster showing in his first debate with GOP challenger Mitt Romney, a journalist traveling with the Democrat joked to other reporters that he could explain what had happened: "The trouble with doing your debate prep in Vegas is that it stays in Vegas."
Whatever the reason, Romney's victory—in front of a TV audience of 67 million—revived his campaign and appears to have fed a public-opinion poll boost (see below) with barely three weeks left until Election Day. Not surprisingly, Obama and his campaign advisers are serving notice that he won't make the same mistake twice when he faces off with his rival on Tuesday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., for a town hall-style debate.
Last week, the president told ABC's Diane Sawyer that he was "determined" to do a better job of challenging Romney. And he told radio host Tom Joyner that he had been "too polite" in the first debate. "We're going to take it to him," the president promised.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who had joked before the first debate that the worst outcome would be that the president "could fall off the stage," set the stage for a fight on Tuesday.
"The American people should expect to see a much more energized President Obama making a passionate case for why he is a better choice for the middle class," she wrote in an email. "And he will continue to hold Mitt Romney's feet to the fire on the facts about his policies."
Vice President Joe Biden's combative performance against Congressman Paul Ryan last week in their only debate appears to have reassured core Democrats dispirited by the president's limp outing. And now, the president, hunkered down at the luxurious Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., is showing the spirit he seemed to lack the first time around.
"How is debate prep going?" a reporter called out to the president as he made a brief visit on Sunday to a nearby campaign field office. "It's going great!" Obama replied. Asked roughly the same question during his Vegas sojourn, Obama had joked: "It's a drag. They're making me do my homework."
In addition to punching up the president's answers, aides are (still) trying to get him to shed his frequently professorial demeanor in favor of shorter responses that do a better job of connecting with voters.
(Pool reporter Helene Cooper of the New York Times notes that Obama is revving up his engine for the debate while the resort also hosts "Ferraris on the James"—with at least 11 of the iconic Italian sports cars on the grounds. Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who plays Romney in mock debates, and senior Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod have been spotted as well, Cooper says.)
On Sunday, Obama began debate prep around 10 a.m., reading briefing books and practicing for Tuesday's session, which will feature questions from actual voters—not from a mainstream media moderator who might more safely be brushed off.
The president's prep team is much the same, except for the addition of Ben Rhodes, who as deputy national security adviser for strategic communications is helping to prepare the president for foreign policy questions. (Rhodes might do well to help his boss have clear, precise answers to questions about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya, for example.)
In her email, Psaki also wrote that "Gov. Romney has been making pitches all of his life, and he knows how to say what people want to hear whether that was during his time at Bain or during the dozens of town halls he did during the primary."
Tellingly, Bain Capital—the private equity firm Romney headed—never came up in the first debate, despite having been the subject of a months-long assault from the Obama campaign.
Psaki also twice underlined that Obama would highlight Romney's pro-life stance, citing the former Massachusetts governor's "belief that women should not be able to make choices about their own health care" and charging that running mate Ryan had left "women worried about their ability to make choices about their own health care."
Obama has generally enjoyed a broad "gender gap" advantage over Romney—but that edge has appeared to narrow since the first debate.
The Republican Party is expecting Romney to debate a more confrontational Obama. GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who has been playing Obama in Romney's debate prep, told ABC News on Sunday that "President Obama is going to come out swinging. I think he's going to have to compensate for a poor first debate."
A day before the debate, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll found just one in eight respondents saying they could still be won over. Enthusiasm for Romney has ticked up. And just 42 percent of those surveyed said the country is heading in the right direction. Fifty-one percent disapproved of Obama's handling of the economy—the foremost question on voters' minds—but still gave the president a narrow edge over his rival on whom they trust on the issue.