For weeks, President Obama's advisers have been lowering expectations for the debate tonight, both privately and publicly forecasting that the Commander in Chief could deliver a dud.
Maybe the expectations weren't low enough.
Three of Obama's top advisers were surrounded by reporters in the spin room, all on the defensive as they took one question after the other about Obama's lackluster performance.
But rather than sticking to the time tested attacks against Romney — criticism's of his wealth, his off shore accounts, and out-of-touch appearance — the campaign tried to convince a skeptical press corps that Romney lost because he appeared "testy."
David Plouffe described Romney as “aggressive.” David Axelrod called the governor’s closing statement “unalloyed carpet bombing.” Campaign manager Jim Messina used the word "testy," too — and before the debate finished, staffers in Chicago picked up the diss in emails to reporters.
“Doesn’t it seem like Romney is on defense a lot tonight?," one Obama official told BuzzFeed, an hour before the debate was over. "Just seems like he’s playing a lot of defense to me and he seems really testy.”
Testy felt like spin — and it was a rare misstep for a campaign that has more or less stuck to a disciplined message to paint a negative picture of their opponent. The campaign has spent tens of millions of dollar to successfully define Romney as an out of touch corporate villain, yet the president tonight failed to pick up on almost any of the major themes that the campaign established.
Obama mentioned corporate tax loops holes and private jets, but didn’t connect it to Bain or bank accounts in the Caymans. Obama avoided mentioning Romney’s toxic 47 percent comment, instead saying the governor probably liked the middle class. (Messina said Obama just wasn't asked about the 47 percent comment.)
The president’s main attack — which Obama returned to multiple times — was that Romney’s policy proposal lacked specifics. However, with the governor armed with an array of data points at his disposal, the “vague” criticism was a tough sell.
In fact, as Romney appeared to pivot to the middle, Obama didn't use one of Chicago's favorite slams against him — that Romney an "etch a sketch" candidate. Instead, it looked it was the president who was shaken up.