President Obama urges a crowd at Ohio State University to register and vote,… (Brendan Smialowski, AFP/Getty…)
COLUMBUS, Ohio — His tepid debate performance has turned a September surge into an October swoon, and President Obama has traded his campaign swagger for a more urgent posture, insisting to supporters that he will finish strong and calling on them to step up as well.
After a weekend trip heavy with fundraising stops, Obama returned to more traditional campaigning Tuesday in Ohio, the state that his team has long viewed as a potential bulwark against Mitt Romney. It was his 30th trip there since taking office and the 15th in 2012.
The president's first order of business Tuesday evening: asking students on the Ohio State University campus to register and vote. The event was timed to coincide with the deadline for voter registration, and Obama told a crowd of 15,000 that buses would be ready to take them from the event to an early-voting location.
"Don't wait. Do not delay. Go vote today," Obama urged. "We've got some work to do. We've got an election to win. Everything that we fought for in 2008 is on the line in 2012."
Just before Air Force One had touched down in Ohio, bad news surfaced in the form of a new CNN poll that showed him with a lead of 4 percentage points there. That was half the lead he held in pre-debate polls in Ohio.
Nationally, a Gallup tracking poll Tuesday showed Romney with a 2-percentage-point edge among likely voters — a measure that, as with the Ohio poll, was within the margin of error and suggests a tossup contest. Before Wednesday's first debate, Obama had been steadily building a lead in surveys nationally and in key states.
Aides said that the tightening numbers were not a cause for panic. The success of the Democratic convention to start September and Romney's missteps in the weeks after — most notably the release of a surreptitiously recorded video showing him dismissing 47% of Americans as irresponsible people who consider themselves "victims" — pushed the president's level of support to or very near his ceiling in the earlier surveys, they argued. And they suggested that he has often rebounded when under pressure.
Still, campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged that Obama planned to shift his approach at the second debate next Tuesday.
"The president has been pretty clear that he's looked back at his debate performance and looked back at the debate performance of Mitt Romney, and he'll take that into account moving forward," Psaki said.
Obama himself indicated, in his demeanor and in his public comments during a West Coast fundraising swing this weekend, that last week's debate was a setback. On Sunday, at a star-studded concert in Los Angeles, Obama acknowledged in public for the first time that his performance was far from "flawless."
On Monday he let on that he'd had no shortage of advice since the debate, with many he's spoken with pleading, "Don't be so polite." An audience of more than 6,000 in San Francisco erupted when Obama shared the sentiment; at times, attendees could be heard shouting at him to "Give him hell" in his next face-off with Romney.
Some of the concerns expressed to the president may have come from his most prominent financial supporters. At a more exclusive event in the Bay Area, the president reassured them: "I am pretty competitive, and I very much intend to win this election."
"I'm a big believer in closing the deal," he said Sunday to a similar high-dollar crowd in Los Angeles.
Yet how best to respond to his listless showing appears to be a challenge. Aides first focused on Romney's aggressive demeanor, calling it "testy." Then they stopped just short of accusing the Republican nominee of outright lies in the debate, and accused him of lurching to the center by seemingly rejecting his own tax plan that Democrats claim would cost $5 trillion without any clear revenue offsets.
"I want everybody to understand something: What was being presented wasn't leadership. That's salesmanship," Obama said Sunday night of Romney's performance.
The Obama campaign also aired a sarcastic television ad featuring Big Bird that hit Romney for suggesting an end to government subsidies for public television, which airs "Sesame Street." "I like PBS. I love Big Bird … but I'm not going to keep on spending money on things, and borrow money from China to pay for it," Romney had said.
On Tuesday, the Republican dismissed the ad as a distraction.
"These are tough times with real serious issues, so you have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird," Romney told a crowd that gathered in a wind-swept field in Van Meter, Iowa. "I actually think we need to have a president who talks about saving the American people and saving good jobs and saving our future, and also saving the family farm."