WASHINGTON -- A small sense of relief emanates from the Obama campaign with the approach of Thursday night's vice presidential debate.
But the soul-gripping panic that dominated the first days after the debate has subsided slightly, replaced by a more sober assessment. The race was bound to be close. And while polls have tightened in some critical swing states, it remains the president's race to lose. On Wednesday evening, the National Journal reported that the Obama campaign's internal polls had Romney narrowing Obama's advantage in those states to within the margin of error.
"It's not going to be easy," said one Obama aide. "But it never was going to be."
In response, Obama's campaign is pursuing smaller, tactical changes rather than major revisions. The fruits of those alterations will be seen in Danville, Ky. at 9 p.m. when Vice President Joe Biden takes the stage.
Obama campaign staffers are coy in offering insight into Biden's mindset for his showdown with the Republican nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.). Their diagnosis of Obama's missteps offers clues of what they want the vice presidential debate to accomplish.
It wasn't just that the president did a poor job calling out Mitt Romney for abrupt policy shifts and obfuscations. While everyone agrees that Obama's absence of effective pushback was painfully obvious, there is a counter-theory that doing so aggressively would have hurt Obama as well. His favorability rating, after all, rose after the debate.
What is universally believed is that a big misstep from the first debate was not laying out an affirmative case for what the Obama administration plans during the next four years. The president's speech at the Democratic National Convention, while criticized as bland, did present that agenda, from manufacturing jobs to energy research and independence, to investments in infrastructure and immigration reform.
Aides said a goal heading into the debates Thursday and thereafter is to do that again, only sharper and with more contrast against Romney's plan. It's unclear to what extent the campaign will use the strong September jobs report to bolster its case.
"The president is focused on achieving what most Americans believe is the nation’s top priority -– restoring economic security for the middle class," Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said in an emailed statement. "This isn’t a small issue -– it will require a combination of reducing the deficit in a balanced way and investments that spur the creation of the jobs and products of the future here in America and he’s laid out a specific blueprint to do it.
Obama allies, including some who consult the White House regularly, see the gains that Romney made in the post-debate period as primarily the product of him presenting an agenda that viewers could grasp. The agenda happened to be more moderate than where the Republican candidate stood during the GOP primary, the allies said. But it was a platform for the next four years nonetheless.
If Biden and Obama fall short of drawing out, in detail, their own platform, there is concern that the campaign's slip in the polls could very well become a free fall.
"I think the thing that he needs to communicate is that we are on the right path and it would be a mistake to get off it," said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress think tank. "I think every president should be able to say what we should do and I think the president should have a clear agenda going into the second term. ... He allowed Romney to sound more specific than he did."
There is, of course, a difficulty in laying out specifics. A 90-minute debate, broken into two-minute answers, is not the ideal forum for waxing philosophically about the future. That certainly is true when the candidate doing the waxing can be as long-winded as the president and his running mate. And therein lies the real challenge facing Biden on Thursday and Obama the week after.
"Romney had big thematics and ignored the facts. What the president did well is release the facts, but had no thematics," said Andy Stern, a longtime labor leader and close Obama ally. "You didn't walk away saying, 'Oh I know what he's going to do, or he has a jobs plan, or an infrastructure plan.' ... He had words.
"The president had a lot of great facts, but they weren't grouped together," Stern added. "People need headlines, they want the Daily News -- not the New Yorker -- when watching the debate."