APOPKA, Fla. — Wednesday’s debate was more than a momentary setback for President Barack Obama: it has forced him, for the first time since the 2008 Democratic primary, to fight for his political identity.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has appropriated for his campaign the slogan of a gritty fictional football team in a series also recognized for its honest depiction of enduring love.
Five days after the debate, there’s been a role reversal — with Obama going relentlessly negative on his opponent, while Mitt Romney, who has struggled to connect, running on emotion.
“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts,” read the subject line of an email from Ann Romney on Sunday, two days after Romney started using the line in his stump speech. The full quote, “Can’t Lose” appeared in the hold room before he met Barack Obama.
Aides say that having proved his ability to stand on the presidential debate stage with Obama, Romney’s next task to is make a dent in his poor likability numbers — proving his ability to serve as the nation’s emotional guide in times of crisis.
“People see Mitt Romney as president now,” said an aide. “[Romney] accomplished that.”
The Obama ads of late have been included repeated attempts to call Romney’s $5 trillion tax cut dishonest — something the president himself failed to do on the debate stage.
Romney’s message now boils down to a simple, “Why would anyone expect the next four years to be better than the last four years if Obama wins re-election,” Time’s Mark Halperin noted.
But the Obama case to voters has been more muddled: a combination of saving Big Bird, fact checking Mitt Romney on a tax cut, and repeating the attacks on Romney that he is out of touch with mainstream America.
Obama’s closing argument in the debate was a meandering repetition of his stump speech lines, coupled with an admission that he didn’t live up to the high expectations of some of his supporters four years ago. The Romney argument, in contrast, was a crisp listing of popular policy areas he and Obama disagree on and what he would do to stop them as president.
“Romney looked forward, while Obama looked back,” the Romney aide maintained.
Sunday, the author of the book “Friday Night Lights,” Buzz Bissinger, wrote his own anguished endorsement of Romney Sunday.
Obama “is no longer the chosen one. He is just too cool for school in a country desperate for the infectiousness of rejuvenation,” Bissinger wrote. “Romney has it. Our president no longer does.”
Obama aides, meanwhile, are scrambling to appear back on offense after the debate performance.
“The American people want a fight,” an aide said, channeling the campaign’s new message that times are tough. “They want to see the president come up to bat for them. That’s why he’s saying Romney’s dishonest.”
Still, the contrast and the reversal are striking even to those working in the trenches.
In a speech in Port St. Lucie on Sunday, Romney outlined the rationale for his latest emotional push.
“I know something about great human beings in this country,” he said. “It’s that that gives me the confidence that our future will be so bright, because I’ve seen how Americans respond to challenge, and even to tragedy.”
Mitt Romney is trying to tell the stories of national inspiration, while Barack Obama is talking about a tax cut.
“Who would’ve thought,” reflected another Democratic aide.