Everything was going great for Barack Obama until about 9:04 on the night of Oct. 3, when Mitt Romney startled everybody by refusing to live up to his caricature as The Worst Candidate Ever.
Romney's late-game comeback -- an unexpected assertion of presidential competence in front of 67 million viewers -- robbed Obama of his momentum and forced the president's team to make a subtle yet significant change to their closing argument in the critical last two weeks of the 2012 campaign.
Obama's Chicago-based brain trust had intended to highlight four years of "solid, steady progress" in the final days of the race, several Democrats told POLITICO, with a healthy dose of hammering Romney -- a strategy that had given Obama a lead going into that fateful first debate.
Instead, the pressure is now on Obama to prove himself -- and oh so late in the game. That led his campaign on Tuesday to release a detailed, bullet-point plan for his second term -- a formal agenda his team had long resisted despite appeals from the likes of Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and James Carville, and an army of basic-cable liberals, who said the president needed to spend less time cutting down Romney and more time elevating himself.
"Had to do it ... It's all about earning people's votes," emailed a Democrat close to the campaign when the plan was unveiled hours after the third and final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla.
Obama will keep slamming Romney as the campaign comes to an end. Drawing "the contrast" as Obama's team calls it, is still the campaign's engine.
Obama officials publicly claim the plan was in the works all along and doesn't represent a major change. But many Democrats and observers see the Tuesday messaging switch as proof Obama leaned too heavily for too long on a negative "Hit Mitt" strategy, at the expense of a sustained push to convince skeptical voters the president deserves another four years.
"The Obama organization did the single best job of destroying a candidate I have ever seen in my career, from May to September," said pollster Peter Brown, who conducts the Quinnipiac University poll of battleground states.
"But that all went out the window when Romney showed people that the caricature of him as a clown was false. ... Now he's got to make the case for himself. If he was ahead now, my guess is he wouldn't have taken the chance of putting all of this out there."
People close to the president wouldn't say why he hadn't put out a compact, comprehensible list sooner -- a task that is the policy equivalent of making sure the candidate's name is spelled correctly on yard signs.
But several Democrats behind the scenes said Obama was reluctant to be hemmed in by a campaign-year agenda if he were reelected -- and he saw no need to put a detailed plan on the table earlier this year when Romney was squirming.
Top campaign officials authorized the creation of a plan around the time of the convention but chose not to release it before the debates to deny Romney any lines of attack.
Obama's aides then briefly considered putting it out before the second debate, but they decided it would serve the campaign better as a tool to motivate volunteers and focus media coverage in the final two weeks.
But the hour is getting late. Obama has a mere 13 days to sell a shrinking group of undecided swing-state independents on his plan -- a glossy compendium of previously released proposals on small-business creation, manufacturing policy, green jobs and education proposals that he'll send to 3.5 million voters starting this week.
Accompanying the brochure is a new 30-second ad that will air in Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Nevada and Colorado. It features Obama speaking earnestly into the camera, declaring, "There's just no quit in America," and directing voters to a revamped "plans" section of his campaign website.
At a post-debate rally in Delray, Fla., on Tuesday, Obama urged voters to do a side-by-side comparison.
"I have laid out a plan for middle-class jobs and security," said Obama at a rally hours after a strong showing in the last debate. "Unlike Mitt Romney, I'm actually proud to talk about what's included -- I'm actually proud to talk about what's in it. The math in my plan adds up."
At the first debate, Romney unveiled a gauzy five-point economic recovery platform and has blasted Obama at all debates for attacking him instead of presenting his own "agenda."
Other Democrats had publicly demanded the Obama campaign put out a plan, but Obama's top advisers pride themselves on sticking to the course they navigate without outside interference.
Besides, they reasoned, Obama has plenty of concrete plans already on the books: a jobs bill that has languished on Capitol Hill for more than a year, sweeping education and green energy measures, and the centerpiece of every Obama rally, a deficit reduction plan rooted in letting Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy expire at year's end.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said the president's standard whistle-stop speech contained more detail than Romney's written proposals. "Every voter has in hand what the president's outlined on the stump throughout the campaign," LaBolt said.
That may be true, but Democrats, led by Carville and his friend, the pollster Stan Greenberg, have been churning out polling data for weeks showing that Obama was in danger of making the same mistake Romney did -- allowing the opposition to define him as a candidate.
The clamor for a plan intensified before the Democratic National Convention in September, when the pair called upon Obama to use his acceptance speech as a mini-State of the Union address laying out a detailed agenda, as Bill Clinton did in 1996.
Obama met them considerably short of halfway: He offered a few broad commitments to energize independents and young voters, such as cutting in half the pace of college tuition costs over the next decade, vowing to create a million new manufacturing jobs and setting an ambitious new target for cutting reliance on foreign oil.
Those ideas are included in Obama's new plan, a 20-page booklet that offers rich color photographs of a smiling Obama interacting with happy voters -- and lots of small print divided into a half-dozen policy sections.
"A glossy pamphlet two weeks before an election is no substitute for a real agenda for America," wrote Romney spokesman Ryan Williams in an emailed statement. "Instead of offering a plan to get our economy back on track and create new jobs, President Obama is offering more tax increases, more spending, more debt, and fewer jobs."
Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod, speaking to MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, said Obama's pamphlet provides a lot more policy detail than Romney's campaign website, and denied the plan was released under political duress.
"Of course the pamphlet reflects the ideas that the president has advanced throughout this campaign about where we need to go as a country, building on the progress that we made. ... It's the plan that he talked about at the convention, it's the plan that he talks about every day, but we wanted to codify it and put it in one place," Axelrod said.
But other Democrats wondered whether the gesture comes too late.
"Maybe it's not too late, but wouldn't it have been cool to have a great document put out the day after the convention when everyone was riding really high, instead of now?" asked polling analyst Erica Seifert, who wrote several memos with Carville and Greenberg urging Obama to define his second-term agenda more clearly.
Seifert goes so far as to question the core contention of Obama's reelection campaign -- that the race should strictly be a contrast between Romney and the president.
"Romney came out in Denver and he didn't seem to be that caricature they painted," she said. "That's why there's a need to define [Obama]. ... Contrast alone does not a reelection make."
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