DENVER — President Barack Obama and his aides rapidly reversed their strategic course Thursday morning, shifting the center of their attacks on Mitt Romney back toward the oldest criticisms of the Republican: That he's a flip-flopper.
Democrats had long been torn over whether to portray Romney as too conservative, or too inconsistent, for the electorate — realizing that the attacks are inconsistent with one another. And since this spring, they seemed to have settled on the former, casting Romney as a conservative whose policies of cutting taxes and spending, and on abortion and other social issues, are too far right for most voters.
Thursday they returned abruptly to the earlier line.
"When I got onto the stage I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney," Obama told a crowd of some 12,000 the morning after the contest. "But it couldn’t have been Mitt Romney because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country the last year promising 5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. The fellow on stage said he didn’t know anything about that."
Obama also accused Romney of "danc[ing]" around his positions; he hit him on taxes as well as outsourcing jobs; and claimed that Romney didn't support teachers.
"The man on stage last night does not want to be held accountabilty for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what’s he been saying for the last year," Obama said, suggesting Romney had switched his positions for political expedience. "And that’s because he knows full well that we don’t want what he’s been selling for the past year."
Former Secretary of Energy Federico Peña, who introduced Obama, also invoked a Romney aide's high-profile gaffe on the theme of the candidate's inconsistency, referring to the Republican as "etch a sketch" during his opening remarks at a chilly morning rally at a Denver park.
The Obama campaign denied any change in strategy, saying they are "honing in" on Romney's supposed dishonesty with the American people. And some of the "etch a sketch" comments appear to have been chaotic early messaging, rather than a coordinated push. But the message is clear — Mitt Romney will say anything to get elected president.
"It is not that Mitt Romney is trying to change his positions, it is that he is trying to hide them," campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki told BuzzFeed. "And if you can't trust that he is going to tell the truth at the debate—how can you trust that he is going to tell the truth in the oval office."
In a hastily-arranged conference call Thursday morning, Obama's top political adviser, David Axelrod, also appeared to return to the "etch-a-sketch" narrative — that Romney is core-less and willing to say anything to become president.
"It was a very vigorous performance but one devoid of honesty," Axelrod said, accusing Romney of "serial evasions and deceptions" in last night's debate.
"He's an artful dodger," he added later in the call, listing the positions on which Romney appeared to soften his position on in last night's debate — including his tax and medicare plans.
Axelrod's words also appeared to telegraph a widely-expected new wave of attack ads from the Obama campaign, which had focused largely to date on Romney's record in the private sector.
The first in that wave, titled "Trust," focuses on Romney's hotly-contested claim that he doesn't back a $5 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years. (Romney has said he would eliminate unspecified tax breaks.)
“If we can’t trust him here," asks the narrator, as a picture of the debate stage switches to an image of the Oval Office, "How could we ever trust him here?”
During the debate, two Obama aides resurrected the "etch-a-sketch" argument against Romney to BuzzFeed.
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said the campaign's task over the next several days is to "Make sure every voter understands the positions Mitt Romney danced around last night."
Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg accused the Obama campaign of "petulant" attacks on the Republican nominee on the call.
“The Obama campaign’s conference call today was just like the President’s performance last night," she said. "The campaign, like the President, offered no defense of the President’s first term record or vision for a second term, and instead, offered nothing but false attacks, petulant statements, and lies about Governor Romney’s record.”
But Obama himself seemed focused on painting Romney as a figure to be mocked, not feared.
In his Denver speech, he jabbed back at Mitt Romney's statement from last night's debate that the former governor would take away funding for PBS's Sesame Street Show, despite his fondness for Big Bird.
"Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird," he said to laughs. "It's about time."
"And Elmo!" a man in the crowd shouted back.
"Elmo, too," Obama responded.
Hip hop star William.i.am opened up the rally, playing a set of music which included the song "Don't Stop Believing."
The Obama surrogate, who attended last night's debate, implored the crowd not to "stop believing" in Obama.
It was a theme another speaker at the rally, Senator Mark Udall revisited as well, a push to rally supporters after last night's disappointing performance.
"Do we all believe?" Udall shouted. "I believe!"
This story has been updated with the Obama campaign's response.