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.
“You can’t allow someone to stand there and basically manhandle the truth and not deal with that,” Mr. Axelrod said. “I know that [the president] is very eager for the next debate.”
Mr. Obama insisted that Mr. Romney, who devoted much of the debate to promising to help the middle class, “cannot pay for his $5 trillion tax plan without blowing up the deficit or sticking it to the middle class.”
“Gov. Romney’s math just doesn’t add up,” he said, “and I had to spend a lot of time last night trying to pin it down.”
Mr. Axelrod also suggested that his boss was partly to blame for not thinking more quickly on his feet at the debate when Mr. Romney attacked his economic policies.
The president “made a choice last night to answer the questions that were asked and talk to the American people,” Mr. Axelrod said. “The president viewed it as a great opportunity to talk to the American people. He didn’t view it, as perhaps Gov. Romney did, as a performance.”
Mr. Axelrod claimed that staging a political performance in an election debate is not Mr. Obama’s “strong suit.”
Romney campaign aides said the former Massachusetts governor was consistent in his positions on the issues in the debate, and they said the Obama camp was looking for a scapegoat for the president’s poor performance.
“In full damage-control mode, President Obama today offered no defense of his record and no vision for the future,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. “Rather than a plan to fix our economy, President Obama simply offered more false attacks and renewed his call for job-killing tax hikes. Mitt Romney demonstrated why he should be president, laying out the clear choice in this election. We can’t afford four more years of the last four years. We need a real recovery — and Mitt Romney has a real plan to deliver it.”
More than 12 hours after the debate, the encounter still seemed to be eating at the president, who told supporters that Mr. Romney changed his positions for the TV cameras.
“The real Mitt Romney said we don’t need any more teachers in our classrooms,” Mr. Obama said. “But the fellow on stage last night, he loves teachers — can’t get enough of them. The Mitt Romney we all know invested in companies that were called ‘pioneers’ of outsourcing jobs to other countries. But the guy on stage last night, he said that he doesn’t even know that there are such laws that encourage outsourcing — he’s never heard of them.”
He added with annoyance in his voice, “The man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year. So Gov. Romney may dance around his positions, but if you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth.”
Some attributed Mr. Obama’s debate performance to the absence of a teleprompter. At the rally Thursday, the president again was aided by the speech-reading device. But his confidence seemed shaken, as he told the Colorado crowd at one point, “I don’t know how many of you will be with me this time around. I still believe in you. I’m asking you to keep on believing in me.”
Even some of Mr. Obama’s most ardent supporters acknowledged that he performed badly in the debate. Rapper will.i.am tried to cheer up the crowd at the rally in Denver, which was held in frigid temperatures.
“I’m going to play music to bring the energy up,” he said. “I know people are low. It’s cold. But there’s a fire right here within us.”
Former Denver Mayor Federico Pena said he was “very proud” of Mr. Obama’s presentation in the debate.
“The president spoke the truth, and the truth counts,” he said. Mr. Pena referred to the Republican as the “new Mitt Romney” for his supposed newfound support for the middle class.
The next presidential debate will cover foreign policy, and some of Mr. Obama’s thoughts Thursday were already on what his opponent might say or do.
“It will be interesting to see what the guy who was playing Mitt Romney yesterday will say about foreign policy when we meet next, because he said it was ‘tragic’ to end the war in Iraq,” Mr. Obama said. “He won’t tell us how he’ll end the war in Afghanistan.”
Mr. Romney’s strong performance also adds pressure to Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who squares off against Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan next week in Danville, Ky.
Mr. Biden told reporters that Mr. Obama “did well” and was “presidential” against what he described as his shifting Republican rival. Mr. Biden said he is studying the finer details of Mr. Ryan’s positions so the Wisconsin Republican can’t follow Mr. Romney’s example and easily pivot away from attacks.
“You just don’t ever know what game, what positions Gov. Romney’s going to come with,” he told reporters while campaigning in Iowa. “Last night, we found out he doesn’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I guess he outsourced that to China or something.”
• Susan Crabtree in Washington contributed to this report.