Obama Criticized For Not Pushing Back During Debate

A day after the first debate, President Obama campaigned in Denver and Wisconsin.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From Mitt Romney, now to President Obama, who wasted no time today putting last night's debate performance behind him. The president hit the campaign trail this morning with an event in Denver, then to Madison, Wisconsin. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins me now. And, Scott, what are the Obama loyalists saying today?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, they're praising Mitt Romney for what they're calling his good performance. Political adviser David Axelrod said that Romney might win an Oscar for his performance in the debate last night but that he won't win the White House because they say Romney's deliver was untethered to the facts. Axelrod said it was well-delivered but fraudulent.

They went on to give sort of a point-by-point rebuttal of what Romney had said about taxes, about health care, about government spending, but you sort of wonder why didn't the president himself do that more forcefully during the debate last night. After all, this could not have come as a surprise. They've studied Romney's debate performance in the past. Obama advisers have told me that they see Mitt Romney as someone who is willing to say anything in the moment even if it causes him problems down the road. You could look at Romney's tax plan as an example of that. It was something that was sort of slapped together hastily during the GOP primaries, and now that it's not penciling out according to many analysts, Romney's backing away from it.

CORNISH: So what's the explanation for why the president didn't push back harder during the debate?

HORSLEY: Well, what his aides are saying is that he didn't want to get into an endless session of fact-checking on stage. But they also said they'll have to rethink that strategy going forward and that the campaign will be spending the days from now trying to communicate some of the discrepancies in what Romney said during the debate and what he said in the past. You saw the beginning of that this morning at a campaign rally here in Denver when the president joked about the spirited fellow he met at the debate claiming to be Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN RALLY)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney's decisions and what he's been saying for the last year. And that's because he knows full well that we don't want what he's been selling for the last year.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama also went after Romney for his deficit-cutting plan. That plan relies entirely on spending cuts. But the only concrete cut that Romney identified during the debate was federal funding for public television.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN RALLY)

OBAMA: That was his answer. I mean, thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It's about time.

HORSLEY: Again, the campaign says they'll be pushing this discrepancy message on the trail, but they did miss a big opportunity to do so before a large primetime audience last night.

CORNISH: Now the president came into last night's debate with a small lead in most polls both nationally and in the battleground states. How much of a difference will this debate make?

HORSLEY: That's the big question mark. It is not uncommon for challengers to get a boost in the polls when they go up against an incumbent president, and the Obama campaign has laid the groundwork saying they fully expect something like that could happen. But they also say there's a difference in what people say about who won the debate and what actually happens to the votes. We've heard from even Obama supporters who feel that Mitt Romney had a better performance in the debate last night that it won't necessarily change their votes. So we'll have to wait a few days to see what this actually means in the polls.

CORNISH: Scott, the president's also campaigning today in Wisconsin. So what are they looking for from that state?

HORSLEY: Well, the president will be holding a rally in Madison, Wisconsin, a liberal college town. As with Denver, they're looking for a big, friendly crowd to sort of buck up the president and maybe replace some of the debate footage on the TV news with pictures of Mr. Obama in front of adoring crowds. The mission in Wisconsin could be more than just a psychic boost though. Wisconsin is, of course, a battleground state and a pro-Romney superPAC, Restore Our Future, has just announced a million-dollar-plus ad buy there.

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley, traveling with the president. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Audie.

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