Looking to rebound from his uninspired performance in Wednesday night's debate, President Obama today mocked his opponent for shape-shifting into a "spirited fellow" who "couldn't have been Mitt Romney."
"The real Mitt Romney has been running around the county for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts to favor the wealthy," the president told supporters in Denver. "The fellow on the stage last night said he didn't know about that."
"The Mitt Romney we all know," he said, had invested in companies that sent jobs overseas. "The guy onstage last night, he said that he doesn't even know that there are such laws that encourage outsourcing."
Obama also joked about Romney's threat to end federal funding for PBS as part of a deficit reduction plan.
"Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird," he said. "It's about time."
Despite the digs, Obama's comments about the "spirited fellow" he met in the debate were a tacit acknowledgement that Romney had gotten the better of their first encounter.
Obama will look to rebuild the momentum he lost in the debate with a stop later today in Madison, Wis., a college town he's likely to find a lot friendlier than the debate hall at the University of Denver.
Virginia is the next stop for a revitalized Romney, who in 90 commanding minutes offered his campaign, and some discouraged partisan supporters, new hope their man can carry these newfound good feelings through to Election Day.
Often criticized for being vague with his own policy proposals, Romney in his first ever presidential one-on-one made a sustained effort to rattle off dollar figures, rates, and plan-points in a rhetorical blitz that the president seemed unable to meet.
The Republican National Committee seized on Obama's body language today, releasing a web video called, "Smirk," a compendium of the president's occasionally exasperated facial contortions during the debate.
Their counterparts at the Democratic National Committee issued a YouTube spot of their own, showing Romney repeatedly interrupting the moderator and president. "If rude and unbearable is your cup of tea," they said in a statement, "you would have certainly gotten your fill from Mitt Romney last night."
But even as Democrats defended Obama on the substance of the debate, they admitted he likely lost the first round.
Longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said on Good Morning America that Obama "left a lot of good stuff in the locker room."
Stephanie Cutter, the president's deputy campaign manager, conceded a Romney victory. "I think that Mitt Romney, yes, he absolutely wins the preparation. And he wins the style points," she said on CNN late Wednesday night.
Cutter's boss, chief Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod, had less to say about the president's performance, instead calling Romney's message "well-delivered but fraudulent."
When Obama did try to push his own agenda Wednesday night, Romney turned the tables.
"But you've been president four years," was his response to Obama's promise to shave $4 trillion off the deficit with a plan his administration was "putting forward to Congress right now."
When Romney accused Obama of cutting $716 billion from Medicare to pay for "Obamacare," the president replied that he "liked" the term Obamacare.
Debate moderator Jim Lehrer, the PBS anchor, asked Obama for a response to the charge, but the president elected to speak about Romney and running mate Paul Ryan's plan to privatize parts of Medicare.
Obama also passed up the opportunity to question Romney's claim that his health care plan would cover people with "preexisting conditions," an assertion one of his top aides, Eric Fehrnstrom, qualified in the post-debate "spin room."
"We'd like to see states do what Massachusetts did," Fehrnstrom said. "In Massachusetts we have a ban on pre-existing conditions." The Massachusetts law, which provided the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act, requires insurance companies take all comers. By contrast, candidate Romney's proposal would not, instead leaving that decision to the states.
Romney also refused to provide any more specifics on how he would pay for 20 percent, across-the-board tax cuts and military spending increases estimated to come in at $2 trillion. On the stump, Romney has promised to close tax loopholes, but last night he would not name the particular deductions he planned to wipe out.
When Obama suggested Romney's declared "love" of teachers was not backed up by his budget plan, the challenger was prepared with one of those much-anticipated "zingers."
"Mr. President," he said, "you're entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts. All right, I'm not going to cut education funding. I don't have any plan to cut education funding."
Debate Fall Out
"Republicans and Democrats both love America," Romney said toward the end of the 90 minute-meeting. "But we need to have leadership, leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done and could not care less if it's a Republican or a Democrat. I've done it before. I'll do it again."
"Well, first of all," Obama said, "I think Governor Romney's going to have a busy first day, because he's also going to repeal Obamacare, which will not be very popular among Democrats as you're sitting down with them."
Romney negotiating a repeal of the president's health care law on "Day 1" – it's a scenario even his biggest supporters had trouble envisioning just 24 hours ago. But now, with two more debates and a little more than a month to the election, Republicans are daring to dream again.
For Democrats, or at least one high profile former party leader, there's some solace in knowing the next meeting will take place in Hempstead, N.Y., just 66 feet above sea level.
"Obama arrived in Denver at 2 p.m. today – just a few hours before the debate started," former Vice President Al Gore said last night, trying to make sense of Obama's tired look. "Romney did his debate prep in Denver. When you go to 5,000 feet, and you only have a few hours to adjust – I don't know…"