COLUMBUS, Ohio -- His tepid debate performance has turned a September surge into an October swoon, and President Barack Obama has traded his campaign swagger for a more urgent posture, insisting to supporters that he will finish strong and calling on them to step up as well.
After a weekend trip heavy with fundraising stops, Obama returned to more traditional campaigning Tuesday in Ohio, the state that his team has long viewed as a potential bulwark against Romney. It was his 30th trip there since taking office and the 15th in 2012.
The president's first order of business Tuesday evening: asking students on the Ohio State campus to register and vote. The event was timed to coincide with the deadline for voter registration, and Obama told a crowd of 15,000 that buses would be ready to take them from the event to an early vote location.
"Don't wait. Do not delay. Go vote today," Obama urged. "We've got some work to do. We've got an election to win. Everything that we fought for in 2008 is on the line in 2012."
But just before Air Force One touched down, bad news surfaced in the form of a new CNN poll that showed him with a lead of just 4 percentage points. That was half the lead he held in pre-debate polls in Ohio.
Nationally, a Gallup tracking poll Tuesday showed Romney with a 2-point edge among likely voters--a measure that, as with the Ohio poll, was within the margin of error and suggests a toss-up contest. Before Wednesday's first debate, Obama had been steadily building a lead in surveys nationally and in key states.
Aides insisted that the tightening numbers were not a cause for panic. The success of the Democratic convention to start September and Romney's missteps in the weeks after -- most notably the release of a surreptitiously recorded video showing him dismissing 47 percent of Americans as "victims" -- pushed the president's level of support to or very near his ceiling in the earlier surveys, they argued. And they suggested that he has often rebounded when under pressure.
Still, campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged that Obama planned to shift his approach at the second debate next Tuesday.
"The president has been pretty clear that he's looked back at his debate performance and looked back at the debate performance of Mitt Romney, and he'll take that into account moving forward," Psaki said.
Obama himself indicated, in his demeanor and in his public comments over the course of a West Coast fundraising swing this weekend, that last week's debate was a setback. On Sunday, at a star-studded concert in Los Angeles, Obama admitted for the first time that his performance was far from "flawless."
On Monday he let on that he's had no shortage of advice since the debate, with many he's spoken with pleading, "Don't be so polite," in his next face-off with Romney. An audience of more than 6,000 in San Francisco erupted when Obama shared the sentiment; at times, attendees could be heard shouting at him to "Give him hell" in their next face-off.
Some of the concerns expressed to the president may have come from his most prominent financial supporters. At a more exclusive event in the Bay Area, the president re-assured them: "I am pretty competitive, and I very much intend to win this election."
"I'm a big believer in closing the deal," he said Sunday to a similar high-dollar crowd in Los Angeles.
Yet how best to respond to his listless showing appears to be a challenge. Aides first attempted to focus on Romney's aggressive demeanor, calling it "testy." Then, they stopped just short of accusing the Republican nominee of outright lies in the debate, and accused him of lurching to the center by seemingly rejecting his own tax plan that Democrats claim would cost $5 trillion without any clear revenue offsets.
"I want everybody to understand something: What was being presented wasn't leadership. That's salesmanship," Obama offered Sunday night.
The Obama campaign resorted to airing a sarcastic television ad featuring Big Bird that hit Romney for suggesting an end to government subsidies for public television, which airs Sesame Street."I like PBS. I love Big Bird...but I'm not going to keep on spending money on things, and borrow money from China to pay for it," Romney had said.
On Tuesday, the Republican dismissed the ad as a distraction.
"These are tough times with real serious issues, so you have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird," Romney told a crowd that gathered in a windswept field in Van Meter, Iowa. "I actually think we need to have a president who talks about saving the American people and saving good jobs and saving our future, and also saving the family farm."
Another spot released Tuesday reinforced in a more serious way the Obama camp's concerns about Romney's new momentum. That ad, airing in swing states, links Romney to his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal to cut back spending on Medicaid. The cuts would "burden families with the cost of nursing home care," the ad said, picking up on a line of attack former President Bill Clinton stressed when he made the case for Obama at the Democratic National Convention.
The ad also indicated that the Obama campaign views Thursday's vice presidential debate as an opportunity to get back on track.
Top campaign strategist David Axelrod, as long planned, has been presiding over practice sessions for Vice President Joe Biden at a hotel near his home in Delaware since last weekend. Senior White House counselor David Plouffe, the architect of Obama's 2008 campaign, left the president's side Monday to join them.
A Biden aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly reflect on strategy, said they view Ryan as being "in a box." "He has been the face of Republican policies for years," the aide said, making it potentially difficult for him to follow Romney's lead in taking a more centrist position.
Obama himself will return to more intensive preparations for next Tuesday's meeting, a town-hall format, this weekend in Williamsburg, Va.
Romney, too, is expected to more intensively prepare in coming days, but on Tuesday he was in Iowa and Ohio, both battleground states where he hoped for a lasting boost.
Speaking on a stage set with hay bales and bunting that was flanked by two huge tractors, Romney touted his plan to roll back regulations that he said have burdened family farms. He noted that he would permanently eliminate the estate tax--a popular issue here.
"We ought to kill the death tax. You paid for that farm once, you shouldn't have to pay for it again," Romney said to cheers. "Now and then a farm is successful enough to save a little money. And when you do save your money, the president has this idea of raising your taxes a lot on your savings, your interest and dividends and capital gains if you're lucky enough to have them. My view is that if you're making $200,000 a year and less, you should pay no tax whatsoever on interest, dividends or capital gains."
Memoli of the Tribune Washington Bureau reported from Ohio and Reston of the Los Angeles Times from Iowa. Contributing from Washington were Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons of the Tribune Washington Bureau.
By MICHAEL A. MEMOLI AND MAEVE RESTON
Tribune Washington Bureau