Seeking to rebound from a debate performance widely panned as lackluster, President Obama and his campaign on Thursday staked out their message for the days ahead, painting Romney as a "serial evader" whose slick performance belies a troubling lack of policy specifics.
Obama's campaign seemed to concede the strength of Romney's performance last night, with the president describing Romney as a "spirited fellow" at a campaign stop in Denver on Thursday, and with deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, during post-debate spin on Wednesday, allowing that Romney "wins the style points."
But the president and his team believe that Romney, smooth onstage operator that he was, nonetheless opened himself to criticism that his tax reform, health care, and Wall Street regulation proposals are a smokescreen - all show, no substance.
Mr. Obama began prosecuting the case against Romney's vague proposals at the debate, explaining, "He says he's going to close deductions and loopholes for his tax plan. That's how it's going to be paid for but we don't know the details. He says that he's going to replace Dodd-Frank, Wall Street reform. But we don't know exactly which ones. He won't tell us. He now says he's going to replace Obamacare and assure all the good things that are in it are going to be in there and you don't have to worry."
"And at some point I think the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they're too good?"
The moment was largely lost amid the near-unanimous verdict that Mr. Obama failed to connect, but Cutter pressed the narrative further immediately after the debate, telling CNN, "[Romney] talked to the American people about his plan to repeal Wall Street reform, but couldn't name one single regulation he'd put in place on Wall Street. Talked to the American people about how he doesn't really have a $5 trillion tax cut, which he has been campaigning on for 18 months. So I don't think they leave this debate tonight having any better idea of where Mitt Romney is going to take this country."
Chief Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod sounded a similar note in a post-debate interview with NBC, saying, "Gov. Romney has always been good on the attack. You saw that during the primaries. What he's not very good at is offering specifics."
It was a charge that Mr. Obamaon Thursday, delivering a stump performance that was as energized as his debate performance was effete. "When I got onto the stage I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. But it couldn't have been Mitt Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country all year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts for the wealthy. The fellow onstage last night said he didn't know anything about that," the president said.
"So you see, the man onstage last night -- he doesn't want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney and what he's been saying for the last year, and that's because he knows full well we don't want what the real Mitt Romney has been selling for the last year."
The emerging rejoinder wasfrom the Obama campaign released Thursday in which the narrator asks, "Why won't Romney level with us about his tax plan, which gives the wealthy huge new tax breaks? Because according to experts, he'd have to raise taxes on the middle class - or increase the deficit to pay for it."
The ad links Romney's vague proposals to a broader question about trustworthiness, asking voters how they could trust Mitt Romney in the Oval Office if he will not level with them at a debate.
Romney, for his part, didn't brag about all the plaudits thrown his way at an event in Colorado this morning. "Last night I thought was a great opportunity for the American people to see two very different visions for the country," Romney told a Denver crowd, following a standing ovation. "I think it was helpful to be able to describe those visions."
The Romney campaign, however, seemed content to brag on their candidate's performance, with campaign senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom calling Romney the "clear victor" and spokesman Ryan Williams suggesting the Obama campaign is "in full damage-control mode."