Obama Needs To Make Up For First Lackluster Debate

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President Obama faces a challenge in the second debate with Mitt Romney after a lackluster performance two weeks ago.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney face off in their second debate tonight. Unlike their first encounter two weeks ago, this time it's the president who needs a game changer. He was widely panned for a lackluster performance in Denver. His campaign says he'll be more aggressive this time around, but as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, tonight's town hall format will make that a challenge.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: At a fundraising dinner hosted by Michael Jordan this summer, President Obama compared the campaign to a championship basketball game. If you've got a little bit of a lead late in the fourth quarter, he told Jordan and the other NBA stars in attendance, that's when you put them away. You don't let your opponent back in the game.

Mr. Obama failed to follow that advice in the first debate. Mitt Romney's not just back in the game, on some scoreboards he's now ahead. So the president turned to a different, more reassuring basketball metaphor on Tom Joyner's radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TOM JOYNER'S MORNING SHOW")

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You guys know a little bit about basketball. You know you have a seven game series, we're up 2-0 and we lose one...

TOM JOYNER: Yeah, but you had the open shot and you didn't take it.

OBAMA: Yeah, but I understand...

HORSLEY: Democrats have been stewing about that for the last two weeks. Since that first debate, Mr. Obama has been aggressive in challenging what he describes as Governor Romney's extreme makeover. The GOP nominee softened his positions on taxes, regulation and health care to appear more centrist. Mr. Obama warned supporters in Miami not to trust that eleventh-hour conversion.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL SPEECH)

OBAMA: Governor Romney thinks we have not been paying attention for the last year and a half. He is going to say whatever it takes to try to close the deal. And he's counting on the fact that you don't remember that what he's selling is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.

HORSLEY: Polls suggest the president needs to do a better job of selling that message. Here's political advisor, David Axelrod.

DAVID AXELROD: I think as long as he is himself and presents that case passionately and draws those distinctions with Governor Romney, I think that he'll do fine. I don't think he's holding back and I don't think the candidate you see will be holding back.

HORSLEY: But don't look for Mr. Obama to be as feisty or combative as Vice President Biden was in his debate last week. First of all, it's not his nature and what's more, it's not that kind of setting.

MITCHELL MCKINNEY: The focus changes a great deal in a town hall debate.

HORSLEY: Political communications expert Mitchell McKinney of the University of Missouri says winning tonight's debate is less about throwing stones at one's opponent than making a connection to the people in the audience, those in the debate hall and those watching at home. As Al Gore and Bob Dole learned, being overly aggressive in that setting can backfire.

MCKINNEY: We've seen President Obama since the first debate performance suggest that he's going to get more aggressive and take it to Romney. Well, one may need to keep that in check so as not to appear mean-spirited, petty, even desperate, because what we're looking at in this debate is to see how well the candidates relate to ordinary citizens.

HORSLEY: Warm and fuzzy does not come naturally to the cool and cerebral president the way it does to Bill Clinton, for example. But Mr. Obama has gotten better with practice. Here he is last fall at a town hall in Illinois.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOWN HALL DEBATE)

OBAMA: And how old are you, Jordan?

JORDAN: Thirteen.

OBAMA: Thirteen. You're Malia's age, huh? So you're going into eighth grade?

JORDAN: Yeah.

OBAMA: Did you already start?

JORDAN: Yeah.

OBAMA: Yeah? How's school going so far?

JORDAN: Good. Today was my first day.

OBAMA: Yeah? No wonder you look so cheerful.

HORSLEY: But fielding unscreened questions from voters is far from child's play. In this campaign year, the president has held only a handful of town hall meetings, compared to more than 100 by Governor Romney. Mr. Obama will have to pick his shots carefully and avoid treating the live audience as mere window dressing for long-winded speeches. If he sees an opening, though, the president will have to take it. He can ill afford another missed opportunity.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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