By Kevin Liptak, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) — After near-universal bad reviews of his first presidential debate with Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama will bring more energy and passion to his second showdown with the GOP nominee, advisers to the president said Sunday.
Yet the come-out-swinging attitude many Democrats crave could be hindered by the debate’s town hall format, which requires a likability factor not completely compatible with aggressive attacks.
The forum, to be moderated by CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley on Tuesday, will force both candidates to be at once personable and vigorous in their rebuttals. On Sunday, Obama aides said Obama’s subdued, languid performance two weeks ago would be replaced by a candidate intent on calling out what he sees as inconsistencies and straight-up lies from his opponent.
“He knew when he walked off that stage (of the first debate), and he also knew as he watched the tape of that debate, that he has to be more energetic,” Robert Gibbs, an Obama campaign adviser and former White House press secretary, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
David Axelrod, another Obama campaign adviser and former White House official, said on “Fox News Sunday” that Obama would be “aggressive in making the case for his view of where we should go as a country.”
Romney adviser Ed Gillespie, also speaking on “State of the Union,” said a shift in style wouldn’t win Obama any points from an electorate looking at the past four years.
“The president can change his style. He can change his tactics. He can’t change his record. He can’t change his policies. That’s what this election is about,” Gillespie said.
Sen. Rob Portman, who is playing Obama in Romney’s debate rehearsals, said the Republican team was ready and expecting Obama to take a more aggressive stance Tuesday.
“I think President Obama is going to come out swinging,” Portman said on ABC’s “This Week.” “He’s going to compensate for a poor first debate. And I think that will be consistent with what they’ve been doing this whole campaign, which is running a highly negative ad campaign. They’ve spent hundreds of millions around the country, including a lot in Ohio, mischaracterizing Gov. Romney’s positions and misrepresenting him. I think you’ll see that again on Tuesday night.”
For Obama, some of that newfound aggression could come from a series of campaign attacks that went unused in his first showdown with Romney, including bringing up Romney’s remark that 47% of Americans are dependent on government support and his tenure as chief executive of Bain Capital, a private equity firm.
Romney’s personal income tax returns could also surface during Tuesday’s debate. Obama’s campaign released a television spot on Friday casting the 14% effective rate Romney paid in 2011 as unfairly low for a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
All of those topics are part of Obama’s regular stump speech, and many Democrats were puzzled and upset that Obama did not mention them during the first debate, leaving him exposed to attacks from Romney without using any of his own trail-tested retorts.
Unlike Obama, Vice President Joe Biden used the “47%” remark to chastise Romney during his debate with the GOP nominee’s running mate, Paul Ryan, saying Romney’s opposition to the auto industry bailout was reflected in the Republican’s comments.
Gibbs and Axelrod foreshadowed a president more intent on fact-checking Romney in Tuesday’s debate. In the days following the first showdown, Obama slammed Romney at campaign rallies as being dishonest about his record and proposals, though he did not make those claims during the debate itself.
“If Mitt Romney puts up his hands and says, ‘I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut, I don’t want to cut taxes on the very wealthy,’ absolutely — I think the president will walk through for voters in that room, that are going to be undecided, exactly what the Romney campaign wants to do and why it’s bad for this country,” Gibbs said.
The town hall setup of the debate, which will give Obama and Romney the chance to speak to both the moderator and undecided voters, could prove to be a barrier to a full-scale assault on Romney’s record, however. Strategists say that debate style requires a degree of likability from a candidate that is difficult to square with negative attacks.
“It requires very good interaction with those people and the ability to be able to connect. You have to be able to come across as very likable in a town hall,” Republican strategist and CNN contributor Ana Navarro said, adding that one of Obama’s strengths is his ability to communicate with average people.
Coming across as likable — while at the same time aggressively fact-checking his opponent — could prove a challenge for the Democratic incumbent. Both Romney and Obama rarely narrate their own negative television ads, leaving the so-called “contrast” commercials to narrators.
And while both Obama and Romney can be aggressively negative at campaign rallies, they are not facing direct questions from voters in those settings.
The new debate setup led both candidates to skip any campaigning Sunday to spend time on debate preparations, Romney at his home in Massachusetts and Obama at a golf resort fronting the James River in Williamsburg, Virginia.
One advantage for the president may be lowered expectations after a maligned first debate, putting him in a position where even a modest improvement will be seen as a victory. The candidates will also be in a setting that even Republicans concede is not Romney’s wheelhouse.
“One of his big challenges during this entire campaign has been not being able to connect with the common man, woman, and child,” Navarro said. “He’s got to be able to come across as connecting, he’s got to come across as genuine, as caring, as likable. I think we’ve seen a lot more of that from Mitt Romney in the last few days on the campaign.”
Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist and CNN contributor, said the setting plays to Obama’s strengths.
“He will absolutely be able to draw from the energy of the public and the crowd, which we know he can really draw on so well. And I think also it will enable him to use a lot of the personal stories that he is so good at using on the stump,” she said.
As Obama’s surrogates on Sunday were previewing a shift to a more robust style, Romney’s advisers were foreshadowing a foreign policy argument against the administration. Republicans have seized upon Biden’s comments at last week’s vice-presidential debate denying knowledge of requests for increased security at an American diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, ahead of the deadly attack there in September.
“Vice President Biden directly contradicted the sworn testimony of the State Department in the debate the other night. That led to another round of kind of nuancing by the White House,” Gillespie said, adding: “There are inconsistencies here, and I think as Americans we deserve to know what really happened going into this attack.”
Gibbs rejected the criticism, calling Republicans who disparage the White House response “wing-tipped cowboys” engaged in “shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy.”
The town hall-style debate Tuesday will focus on both domestic and foreign policy issues, making it likely the Libya issue will arise during questioning from the audience of undecided voters.
CNN’s Athena Jones contributed to this report.