Fiery in Florida, Obama now heads to debate school

President becomes more aggressive regarding Romney

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- To campaign or to study? For President Barack 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., starting Saturday to get ready for debate No. 2 on Long Island, N.Y., on 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 Republican challenger Mitt Romney -- who spent part of Thursday on debate practice himself -- for shifting his position on a variety of issues.

On Thursday, in a University of Miami basketball arena speech, 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, Gov. 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."

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 here, time and again he took Mr. Romney to task. "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 time frame. 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.

Mr. Romney faces similarly vexing demands on his time. After debate practice Thursday morning, he traveled to Asheville, N.C., a state that has received fewer visits from the two presidential campaigns than other battlegrounds, even though polls show the race to be tight there.

Some local Republican strategists expressed frustration that Mr. Romney had not already taken the state out of competition, given that North Carolina's unemployment rate is the fifth-highest in the nation and Mr. Obama's margin of victory in 2008 was the slimmest of any state.

They questioned the Romney campaign's messaging strategy in the state, which seems generic, rather than tailored to North Carolina. Mr. Romney has run an advertisement starring Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is not well known in North Carolina, and he appeared at an Asheville rally with House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio -- a symbol to independent voters of Washington gridlock.

A key reason for Mr. Romney's trip to the state was to pay a visit to the Rev. Billy Graham, a religious adviser to GOP presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Retired and frail at 93, Mr. Graham remains a potent symbol to evangelical Christian voters, an important part of the Republican base that Mr. Romney will need to turn out strongly in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans.

Coming up

The next presidential debate between incumbent Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney is Tuesday.

When: 9 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Where: Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Moderator: CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley

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