What does Obama want to accomplish in next presidential debate?

'More energetic' is how campaign advisers describe what they hope to see from Obama in Tuesday's presidential debate. That 'energy' is likely to be directed toward painting Mitt Romney as a 'severe conservative.'

Charlie Neibergall/AP
In this Oct. 3 photo, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama wave to the audience during the first 'town hall meeting'-style presidential debate will bring Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney to Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island Tuesday, Oct. 16.

How is President Obama approaching his second debate with GOP rival Mitt Romney? He’s got to try to perform differently than he did in their first clash in Denver, after all. That was widely judged a walk-over for Mr. Romney. At times, Mr. Obama was so reserved it seemed as if he didn’t even want to be there.

Lots of his supporters are calling on the president to be more aggressive in confronting Romney, but “aggressive” isn’t a word his advisers are using to describe what they believe will be Obama’s style in Tuesday’s meeting at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York.

After all, the president could appear desperate and unappealingly angry if he just lunges at Romney, rhetorically speaking. Plus, the debate will feature a town-meeting format, which doesn’t lend itself to mano a mano confrontation.

The word Obama advisers are throwing about is “energetic.” They’re promising that, if nothing else, the president won’t repeat a Denver performance that seemed laid-back at best and somnolent at worst.

“He has to be more energetic,” said senior adviser to the president Robert Gibbs on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Yes, but energy without direction is just sparks. What’s Obama going to try to accomplish with his amped-up vigor?

Most likely he’s going to direct that to an attempt to portray his rival as the “severe conservative” that Romney once said he was. That will probably translate into a strategy that takes specific Romney policies and tries to frame them as stuff independent and swing voters might find unappealing.

In Denver, “we saw Governor Romney sort of serially walk away from his own proposals, and certainly the president is going to be willing to challenge him on it,” said senior adviser to the president David Axelrod on “Fox News Sunday.”

In practice that means you’ll likely hear the pair wrangle again over whether Romney’s tax plan is a $5 trillion tax cut tilted to the rich. A new memo from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina lays out 14 questions that Romney might face from the incumbent in the debate, and the first three all focus on tax specifics.

Question No. 3, for instance, is “So how can you claim your tax cuts won’t result in more taxes for the middle class?” Whether an attendee at the meeting will actually question Romney that way remains to be seen; if someone does, we bet Romney’s answer will be the same as it was the first time around. He’ll just state that he won’t raise middle-class taxes, and that his tax plan is overall tax reform that won’t cost the Treasury any revenue because it will be accompanied by elimination of unspecified loopholes and deductions.

Other subjects Obama may try to raise include abortion, an issue Obama aides believe Romney has danced around, and Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. According to the Messina memo, Obama is likely to try to portray Romney’s Bay State tenure as an example of partisan strife.

Back then, Romney’s aides “even erected a velvet rope and cordoned off an elevator in the capitol for his personal use,” claims the memo.

As for Romney, his strategy may well run to smiling and appearing affable while parrying Obama’s jabs. The town-hall-meeting format, in which actual voters are supposed to drive the discussion, may make his job easier. Plus – unlike Obama in the first debate – Romney knows where his opponent is headed. He’ll be prepared to defend himself against the “severe conservative” charge.

Romney “is running on the same platform he has run on through the Republican Party primary,” senior adviser Ed Gillespie told reporter and debate moderator Candy Crowley Sunday on CNN. “The country is a center-right country. They want to have less federal spending. They want to get us on a path to a balanced budget. They want a free-enterprise-driven economy that fosters job creation, not a government-centered economy that fosters economic stagnation.”

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