Where Barack Obama Lost The Debate

Laid-back days in the desert led to the first real crisis of the president’s re-election campaign. Behind the scenes at debate prep in Las Vegas.

HENDERSON, Nev. — A half dozen reporters and three senior Obama officials sat last Monday night around a fire pit on a patio overlooking Lake Las Vegas, which glowed a toxic green under the moonlight. It was late night in the Nevada desert, around 10 p.m., two days before President Barack Obama’s first public debate in four years.

On the invitation of the campaign, the journalists had made the trek from downtown Vegas to the four-star Westin Resort & Spa, about twenty five miles east of the city. It was the spot where the President was holing up for three days, preparing for his showdown with Mitt Romney. The resort — built in 1999 on a man-made body of water and renovated this year for $4 million, with aspirations for a Moroccan vibe (think Rick’s Café) — rested at the end of a winding, darkly lit, road David Lynch would have appreciated.

The concept behind the evening’s gathering was simple: to trade questions and answers before the big night on Wednesday in a more casual, less confrontational setting than a press gaggle. Here at the patio bar, conversations could be had over sips of wine or a dirty Martini or two. For campaign officials, it was a chance to talk just a bit more candidly, with a bit less spin. For journalists, it was the opportunity to get close to what had become one the most tightly held secrets of the campaign: what was really going on in Obama’s debate training camp.

The Westin Las Vegas had become a mini-Los Alamos, the debate prep the Obama campaign’s Manhattan Project. But the atomic sized shock waves that would hit the campaign two days later in Denver, forcing it into its most severe crisis of the re-election, seemed like a remote possibility that evening.

In fact, the whole debate prep storyline had become something of a gag — both for the travelling press’ obsession with it, as well as the campaign’s refusal to dole out even the most basic of details.

How many hours was the president practicing? Was there a mock debate set up? Where in the hotel complex was it taking place? Did John Kerry really arrive in Vegas after flying commercial on Southwest?

No straight answers, or comments across the board — the campaign didn’t want to do process stories, officials said. And along with the information blackout, the campaign had been deeply engaged in the perennially absurd yet entertaining ritual of managing expectations, reaching new heights with an all-time classic answer from spokesperson Jen Psaki.

What was the worst that could happen?

“Well, he could fall off the stage,” Psaki said in her disarmingly effective fashion.

And Obama more or less did.

But that would come later. As the evening at the Westin progressed, reporters began casually tossing questions to the three officials, slipping them in between chitchat about family life and the stresses of the campaign trail. Everyone gave the impression of relaxing. The wild ride of the presidential election was coming to an end in less than 40 days — the sleepless, frantic, high pressure, high stakes experience where careers would be made or destroyed after a half a billion dollars was blown on a success or a failure.

The prize: holding onto the most powerful office in the world.

Do you ever think about losing, one reporter asked a senior campaign official sitting by the fire.

I think about losing “once every five minutes,” the senior campaign official replied.

It appeared, certainly in retrospect, that genuine doubts had infected the Westin grounds.

Following the Democratic National Convention last month, the Obama campaign felt it was on a roll. So confident was the President that on the Saturday night after his Charlotte acceptance speech, he did something extremely rare: he talked to the thirty or so members of the traveling press that follow him everywhere. That evening in Florida, he made a surprise appearance at an off-the-record drinking session with media and campaign staff. The late night charm outreach at the Orlando hotel bar was a clearly tactical move to get the press on his side during the final stretch. But it was also an indication about just how confident Obama felt — and how confident his team was in him.

“They wouldn’t have brought him out unless he was feeling really good,” one journalist who attended the event would say later.

That sense of security was shaken within days. The terrifying news from Libya and the Middle East upped the anxiety, the looming fear of being stigmatized as a One-Term President. A sense that — holy shit! — what if in one month from now we’re packing our bags from the White House? And more importantly, as senior officials would say, the idea of turning over the country and the power of the presidency to Romney was plain offensive to them — a man, in their view, who had surrounded himself with the authors of the worst foreign policy debacles in a generation; a Romney administration that would rip up healthcare and begin to dismantle the New Deal; a right wing cabal that would yet again turn the world against us.

And on a more esoteric yet equally profound level for the veterans of the 2008 campaign, an Obama loss would disillusion an entire generation of young voters who still truly believed in the president’s Obama’s transformative potential.

Two days after the patio gathering, Obama left the Westin Las Vegas for Denver. At about 10:59 a.m., he drove past “the yellowing fairways and burned out greens of an abandoned golf course,” the pool report noted, boarding Air Force One twenty five minutes later. He landed in Colorado at Buckley Air Force Base after a “bumpy approach,” went to the debate site at University of Colorado, went to his hotel, then went back to the debate site.

With the skies darkening and Secret Service agents scrambling to secure fences and tents against an unexpectedly high wind, President Obama’s motorcade pulled out of his hotel at 6:00 p.m. to take the stage. It was about 20 degrees cooler in Denver than in Vegas. In one day, Obama had changed states, time zones, climate, and, most famously, altitude.

The debate kicked off later that evening. Within the hour, campaign officials watching from their headquarters in Chicago were struggling to understand what was unfolding. They couldn’t quite believe Obama was losing. One campaign staffer, informed 20 minutes in by a journalist that the media in Denver had decided that Romney was winning, responded by saying that Romney was actually appearing “testy.” Another official blamed the press, saying that’s what the media said after the DNC speech, too.

Senior adviser David Plouffe would later attack the press as well, claiming that the media was “itching to write the Romney comeback story.”

But even the Obama rapid response team appeared at a loss on exactly how to fire back, sending five or so press releases that didn’t stick. Plouffe looked stunned and “like a zombie,” said one person who watched him enter Spin Alley. When he was pummeled with questions that night, his answer was that the debate didn’t really matter because it wasn’t likely to impact swing statesd. And as the New York Times reported today, with ten minutes left in the debate, they had already moved into damage control mode. There was reportedly a conference call with top officials — including Plouffe, David Axelrod, Jim Messina, and Stephanie Cutter — to figure out what to do.

The day after the debate, according to multiple campaign sources, the campaign was “overtired” and “rattled.” It was clear to even the most hardened veterans that it was one of the worst moments for Team Obama, the first full blown crisis. Working off almost no sleep, the communications team in Chicago flailed, trying to come up with the right response. (In the end they more or less returned to the Etch-A-Sketch attack: that Romney’s a shape-shifting liar who can’t be trusted, as opposed to just “severely conservative.”) That Thursday afternoon, campaign manager Jim Messina lead a meeting to rally the troops. “We had an all-staff meeting scheduled pre-debate,” says an Obama campaign official. “These happen fairly regularly and Jim always revs up the staff.”

Good job numbers to end the week and another hot fundraising month has helped the campaign regain its footing, followed by a glitzy LA fundraising gala on Sunday night. Obama himself poked fun at his performance at the concert featuring Bon Jovi and Katy Perry: “They just perform flawlessly night after night. I can’t always say the same,” he said. On Monday, too, the campaign launched another blistering attack on Romney’s Commander in Chief-ness, criticizing his response to the Benghazi tragedy.

Campaign sources think that some of the issues of the debate will come back to bite Romney — like his attacks on Big Bird. But they also insist that the debate still isn’t a game changer.

“The fundamental dynamics of the race haven’t shifted — close and competitive in key states with a slight lean towards the President,” one campaign official told BuzzFeed. “We had a good month of fundraising that exceeded expectations and are focused on finishing up registration and turning out early voters. If we’re tweaking anything, it’s ensuring that all voters understand in what ways Mitt Romney is brazenly misrepresenting his record.”

Today, the Obama campaign pushed back against what it called “notable problems” in Peter Baker and Trip Gabriel’s Times story. The call to discuss the debate with ten minutes left was planned all along, says a campaign official — “we always hold a call towards the end of the debates to prepare our response and prep our surrogates.” The Obama official also said that David Axelrod was always going to be part of “VP prep, though it is being led by Team VP,” another aspect the Times noted.

But even the appearance of such a detailed story is telling — yes, the kind of process story the campaign hates — as an indication of how big an impact the debate had on Chicago’s psyche. With few exceptions, the Obama campaign has managed to avoid these kinds of pieces about internal campaign deliberations. Historically, too, this is the time of the presidential campaign when senior staff — despite their best intentions and sincere loyalties to their bosses — begin to worry about their own reputations and start to lay narrative cover for themselves in the media.

Back in downtown Las Vegas, the night after the Westin Lake get together, Obama officials held another meet up with journalists at a pub in the Monte Carlo Casino. A few more drinks were had during conversations that danced around a future now only 29 days away.

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