MADISON, Wis. — His performance panned, President Barack Obama is changing his debate strategy against Republican Mitt Romney, aides conceding the president must find a crisper way to sell his agenda and counter his opponent without getting lost in the weeds.
The heart of Obama's new message with less than five weeks to go: Romney is a liar.
Expect that theme — expressed in softer terms from the president than from his aides — to drive Obama's advertising and messaging for days. Wednesday night's debate showed Obama was rusty, rambling and cautious, but his aides insist he emerged with a real opening to target Romney's assertions.
"Gov. Romney may dance around his positions, but if you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth," Obama declared in his first post-debate appearance, a Thursday rally in Denver. He displayed an energy that was conspicuously absent in the debate.
The new line of argument is based on the Obama campaign's contention that Romney, while sharp and commanding on the debate stage, delivered a series of statements that don't stand up to factual scrutiny. They singled out Romney's positions on tax cuts, education and outsourcing as misleading to the middle class.
David Plouffe, the Obama White House adviser who ran his 2008 campaign, called Romney's performance "probably unprecedented in its dishonesty."
Obama's campaign quickly released an ad raising questions about Romney's honesty, arguing that he didn't level with middle-class families on how his tax plan would affect them. "If we can't trust him here, how could we ever trust him here?" the ad says.
It was airing in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia.
At the same time, the Obama camp was forced into its own difficult appraisal of the president's performance, with no shortage of critical outside opinions, either.