DENVER — Reeling from his widely panned performance in the first presidential debate, President Obama and his campaign team Thursday sought to reassure unnerved supporters and to blame the president’s difficulties on the shiftiness of Republican rival Mitt Romney.
Even as Mr. Obama accused Mr. Romney of deceiving voters about his true positions in the debate Wednesday night, the president indirectly acknowledged that his opponent got the better of him in their high-stakes face-off. His assessment of the debate suggested that Mr. Romney got inside his head, too, with the president openly speculating about what the Republican will do in their next meeting Oct. 16.
The president’s top aides vowed that Mr. Obama, who was criticized from the left and right alike as passionless and unfocused during the 90-minute debate on domestic-policy issues, will be more aggressive in his next encounter with Mr. Romney. But they couldn’t deny that the president fumbled an opportunity to bury Republican hopes.
Mr. Romney revived his floundering campaign by dominating Mr. Obama on the stage at the University of Denver, as well as with the pundits and in viewer polls immediately afterward.
Compounding the president’s lackluster showing was the fact that so many people witnessed it. An estimated 67 million people watched the debate, up from 52.4 million viewers for the first presidential debate between Mr. Obama and John McCain in the 2008 general election. Instant surveys showed that viewers rated Mr. Romney as the clear winner, by margins of about 2-to-1.
At a campaign rally at a park in Denver on Thursday morning, Mr. Obama explained away his performance by accusing Mr. Romney of being a two-faced candidate whose positions on issues such as tax cuts are elusive.
“When I got onto the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney,” Mr. Obama told an estimated 12,000 supporters. “But it couldn’t have been Mitt Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. The fellow on stage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.”
The crowd laughed.
At a rally later in the day at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Mr. Obama tried to ridicule Mr. Romney’s memorable pledge during the debate to attack the federal deficit in part by killing funding for public television, even though, the Republican noted, “I like Big Bird.”
Mr. Obama told the Wisconsin rally that Mr. Romney doesn’t “want to go after Wall Street, but he wants to go after ‘Sesame Street.’”
Despite the middling reviews for his debate performance, Mr. Obama drew a crowd of about 30,000 for the Wisconsin rally Thursday, with thousands more reportedly turned away.
‘Will make adjustments’
In spite of the president’s eagerness to criticize an opponent who was no longer on the same stage, his poor performance in the debate sent shock waves through his campaign. The president’s top political adviser, David Axelrod, told reporters that the campaign team will make “adjustments.”
“We’re going to take a hard look at this, and we’re going to have to make some judgments,” Mr. Axelrod said. “I’m sure that we will make adjustments. There are strategic judgments that have to be made, and we will make them.”
Mr. Axelrod said the president and his team made a tactical mistake by not preparing to challenge Mr. Romney more aggressively on his previously stated positions. During the debate, Mr. Romney denied having a $5 trillion tax-cut plan, saying he intends to cut taxes across the board, but would adjust the level of the cuts in a way that would not increase the federal deficit.