With Romney in the lead, Obama needs to step up his debate game

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are huddled with their debate coaches, prepping for Tuesday night. Coming off a lackluster performance in their first encounter, Obama needs to do better.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama makes phone calls to volunteers at an Organizing for America field office with Alexa Kissinger, left, and, Suzanne Stern, right in Williamsburg, Va. Sunday.

Like the New York Yankees without Derek Jeter, President Obama is going to have to step up his game in the presidential debate with the newly-ascendant Mitt Romney this week.

Everybody expects this, as campaign surrogates from both camps emphasized Sunday on the TV news shows.

"He knew when he walked off that stage [of the first debate], and he also knew as he watched the tape of that debate, that he has to be more energetic," Robert Gibbs, an Obama campaign adviser and former White House press secretary, said on CNN's "State of the Union.”

On "Fox News Sunday," campaign adviser David Axelrod said Obama would be "aggressive in making the case for his view of where we should go as a country."

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Republicans agree, adding their own negative twist.

"I think President Obama is going to come out swinging," Sen. Rob Portman, who’s playing Obama in Romney's debate rehearsals, said on ABC's "This Week." "He's going to compensate for a poor first debate. And I think that will be consistent with what they've been doing this whole campaign, which is running a highly negative ad campaign.”

“They've spent hundreds of millions around the country, including a lot in Ohio, mischaracterizing Gov. Romney's positions and misrepresenting him,” Sen. Portman said. “I think you'll see that again on Tuesday night.”

"The president can change his style. He can change his tactics. He can't change his record. He can't change his policies,” Romney advisor Ed Gillespie said on CNN. “That's what this election is about.”

Vice President Joe Biden set the scene in his debate last week with Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate.

Five times, Biden mentioned Romney’s now-infamous comment about the “47 percent” of Americans “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

Romney now acknowledges that his “47 percent” comment to a group of wealthy donors (who presumable felt the same way) was “just completely wrong,” and he stresses that “when I become president it will be about helping the 100 percent,” as he told Sean Hannity on Fox News.

But you can be sure that in their town hall-style debate Tuesday night, Obama will find ways to needle Romney on the “47 percent.”

It’s part of a pattern in the race as both sides try to embrace the middle class, especially those American families struggling in tough economic times.

Romney no longer tries to portray his early married life as a time of basement rental apartments and tuna casseroles, as he and Ann Romney did during the Republican National Convention. But he’s now telling more personal stories about the families he’s met along the campaign trail, working to demonstrate his understanding and compassion.

He may be a millionaire now – although not in the same class as quarter-billionaire Romney – but Obama does have his own middle class background (and that of his wife) to refer to. He’s got Joe Biden’s outspokenness and the Vice President’s working class upbringing in Scranton, Penn., to illustrate the Democratic ticket’s role as champion of working Americans. 

And he’s got Bruce Springsteen – rock-and-roll troubadour to a generation of fans (and voters) who idealize and celebrate the struggle of the underclass. Two nights after Tuesday’s debate, Mr. Springsteen will perform at an Obama rally in the key state of Ohio.

Meanwhile, polls show a race tightening to near-toss up status.

The RealClearPolitics polling average had Romney ahead by a scant 1.3 percentage points Sunday afternoon. Battleground state polls show a mixed picture. Gravis Marketing, a non-partisan research firm, reported Sunday that Obama has regained his lead in Colorado – not as high as the 4.7-point margin he had before the last debate but 2.6 points today.

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