After Fiery Florida Rally, Obama Headed to Debate School

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- To campaign or to study? For President Obama, that has become the question.

On the calendar, there are 25 days until the election. But if there is one thing that emerged after Mr. Obama's performance in last week's debate in Denver, it is that it may be better for him to spend his time preparing for the next one than to stump for votes.

So his advisers are sending the president to study hall. He will hole up in Williamsburg, Va., for four days starting on Saturday to get ready for debate No. 2 on Long Island next Tuesday, and then will do the same thing next weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland. His aides have been impressing upon him the need to aggressively confront Mitt Romney for shifting his position on a variety of issues.

On Thursday, in a speech at the University of Miami's basketball arena, the president sounded like a student who has been paying attention in class. He delivered a full-throated derisive attack on Mr. Romney's move to the center.

"Now Governor Romney thinks we have not been paying attention for the last year and a half," Mr. Obama said. "He's going to say exactly anything he can to close the deal."

Then the president adopted the cadence of a Baptist preacher: "Now, Florida, we gotta tell them his plan will not create jobs; it will not help the middle class. We can't afford it, we're not going back, we're moving forward, and that's why I'm running for a second term as president of the United States."

The irony is that Mr. Obama, when he wants, is light years more effective on the stump than he is in a debate hall. At the University of Miami, the president was energized, displaying the fire that he did not show during the debate. He worked the audience, making them laugh and cheer. And he directed zinger after zinger at Mr. Romney.

Mr. Romney, the president charged, "is trying to go through an extreme makeover."

"After running for more than a year in which he called himself severely conservative, Mitt Romney's trying to convince you that he was severely kidding," Mr. Obama said.

He chuckled. "Suddenly, he loves the middle class. Can't stop talking about them. He loves Medicare, loves teachers. He even loves the most important parts of Obamacare," he said, referring to the health care overhaul.

Where this Barack Obama was during last week's debate is anybody's guess. But in Miami, he time and again took Mr. Romney to task for changing his positions. "Tax breaks for outsourcers? He's never heard of such a thing!" the president said. "Kicking 100,000 young Floridians off their parents' insurance plan -- who me?"

Yet the new study schedule -- which leaves the president with a bare 16 days to campaign after debate preparation -- could take away his more potent weapon: himself. Mr. Obama's advisers, aware that far more people watch the debates than a campaign appearance, say they must strike a balance.

The tightened race -- polls show that Mr. Romney has narrowed Mr. Obama's lead in some crucial states -- heightens the impact of the shortened clock. That is particularly true here in Florida, which has 29 electoral votes and became the nation's most infamous swing state after the Bush-Gore recount in 2000. Its electorate is a diverse mix of conservative Southerners, Hispanics, African-Americans and elderly and Jewish voters.

While Mr. Obama does not appear to have much of a shot with conservative Southerners, he has been fighting to win the support of the rest of the population. At the University of Miami, the student body, according to the school's president, Donna Shalala, is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, thanks in part to the high percentage of students of Cuban heritage. Cuban-Americans tend to lean more Republican than other Hispanics, so that could cut into Mr. Obama's two to one edge over Mr. Romney among Hispanics nationally.

Mr. Obama's campaign aides say they have a 450,000-person advantage in voter registration over Republicans, and in the last three months they have registered 15,000 more Florida voters. At this point in 2008, said Jennifer Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman, Republicans outnumbered Democrats among absentee mail ballots by more than 240,000. "We've narrowed that gap, that margin, so that now it's just over 70,000," she told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Before his speech on Thursday, surrogates for Mr. Obama offered up zingers that the president could use against Mr. Romney in the next debate.

Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, noted Mr. Romney's interview this week with The Des Moines Register, in which he suggested that if elected, he had no plans to try to move legislation restricting a woman's right to choose on abortion. "What has he said during the last two years of his campaign?" Mr. Nelson asked as he warmed up the crowd in the basketball arena. "Exactly the opposite!"

He even suggested a line for Mr. Obama, recounting an attack that Senator Edward M. Kennedy used against Mr. Romney during a debate in the 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts: "Mr. Romney, you've flipped and you've flopped, and by the time the election comes you'll be so confused about what your own position is that you may end up voting for me."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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