Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama shake hands after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver last week.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
WASHINGTON — It's more than President Barack Obama's lackluster debate performance that has some Democrats on edge a month from Election Day.
Party loyalists, in Washington and in battleground states, are fretting that Obama's campaign has been slow to rebound after Republican Mitt Romney's commanding debate. They're worried that the Democratic ticket isn't aggressive enough in blocking Romney's post-debate pivot to the political center. And they fear Romney's new effort to show a softer side gives the Republican nominee an opening with female voters, who are crucial to the president's re-election prospects.
"I'm not feeling very positive," said Awildadsup Marquez, a prominent Democrat in Colorado. "I know that it's only the first debate, but he can't seem to change the relentless negative coverage. Romney has been able to take control."
Her nervousness was echoed by roughly a dozen Democrats in interviews across the country this week before Obama's next opportunity to get his campaign back on track — Vice President Joe Biden's debate Thursday against Republican Paul Ryan.
Obama's campaign says it's sticking to its homestretch plan and doesn't expect major strategy changes. But nevertheless it's seeking to reassure hand-wringing Democrats that key factors still favor the president.
He appears to maintain a narrow lead in polling in many battleground states and has more pathways than Romney to reach the 270 Electoral College votes required to win the White House. More Democrats than Republicans are registered to vote in swing states like Florida and Nevada. And last Friday's dip in the nation's unemployment rate to 7.8 percent gave some credence to Obama's core argument that the economy is slowly but surely recovering.
But there's little doubt that the burst of momentum Obama enjoyed last month has ground to a halt following the first debate. That's given Romney ample opportunity to rebound from a dismal September with just four weeks until Election Day and millions of Americans already casting early votes. Polls taken after the debate show the race tightening nationally and in key states, though both parties say the president maintains an edge in places like Ohio and Virginia.
"I've never seen a candidate this late in the game, so far ahead, just throw in the towel in the way Obama did last week," wrote Andrew Sullivan, a blogger and ardent Obama supporter.
Most Democrats aren't quite that apoplectic.
But there are rumblings in their ranks about whether Obama's campaign has been aggressive enough coming out of the debate, particularly in accusing Romney of lying about his positions and abandoning the conservative policies he embraced during the GOP primary.
Several strategists said they were perplexed that the campaign, nearing $1 billion in fundraising, wasn't churning out television advertisements juxtaposing clips of Romney from earlier in the year with his comments during the debate. That's allowing Romney, they say, to get away with shifting to the center.
"I don't believe you ever let a charge go unanswered, so in that respect I wish they were more forceful," said Chuck Ardo, a former spokesman for ex-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
Other Democrats fear the debate fallout is leading to softening support for the president among women, which has long been one of his strengths. Romney is making a clear play for female voters coming out of the debate, sprinkling personal anecdotes into his speeches in an attempt to appear more empathetic.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said his recent research found that unmarried women in particular were not swayed by Obama's economic arguments during the debate. But they were open to Romney's approach.
"There was a positive response of these voters to Romney identifying with the middle class and their struggle and a very strong response to Romney's five-point economic plan," Greenberg said.
That marked a shift from last month, according to the pollster. Many unmarried women responded positively to Obama's message during the Democratic convention and were particularly offended by Romney's comments in a leaked fundraising video about 47 percent of voters who don't pay federal income tax and feel they are victims.
Obama never raised Romney's remarks during the debate, to the dismay of many Democrats.
Greenberg said the group he surveyed "needs the 47 percent attack. It needs the attack on who Romney identifies with and whom he doesn't get."
Obama's campaign on Tuesday ran its first ad since the debate incorporating Romney's comments on the 47 percent. The 30-second spot focused on seniors, arguing that some of the "victims" Romney referred to were seniors receiving Medicare.
Despite the Democratic worries, officials at Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters say there are no late strategy shifts in the works. And they insist their approach always accounted for the race tightening in the final weeks.
"We never anticipated winning battleground states by 10 points and can't imagine winning a ton of them by 5 points," said Ben LaBolt, Obama's campaign spokesman. "Our task is to lay out the economic choice every day for undecideds and to turn out our supporters."
For some Democrats, who sensed some in the party getting overconfident before the debate, a case of the nerves may not be such a bad thing.
"I'd rather get a jolt four weeks out than a week out when there's still time to do something about this," said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist.