When President Barack Obama stepped off the stage in Denver last week the 60 million Americans watching the debate against Mitt Romney already knew it had been a disaster for him.
But what nobody knew, until now, was that Obama believed he had actually won.
In an extraordinary insight into the events leading up to the 90 minute showdown which changed the face of the election, a Democrat close to the Obama campaign today reveals that the President also did not take his debate preparation seriously, ignored the advice of senior aides and ignored one-liners that had been prepared to wound Romney.
The Democrat said that Obama’s inner circle was dismayed at the ‘disaster’ and that he believed the central problem was that the President was so disdainful of Romney that he didn’t believe he needed to engage with him.
‘President Obama made it clear he wanted to be doing anything else – anything – but debate prep,’ the Democrat said. ‘He kept breaking off whenever he got the opportunity and never really focused on the event.
‘He went into the debate armed with a number of one-liners to throw at Romney, including at least two about Romney not caring about 47 per cent of the country. But he decided not to use them.’
The Democrat, who is aligned with the Obama campaign and has been an unofficial adviser on occasions, said that David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, was stunned that the President left the stage feeling that he had won the debate.
‘To his credit, the President believes that debates are about substance rather than performance. He felt that his argument about the direction this country should take was much stronger than Romney’s. Unfortunately, that’s not the way modern debates work.’
During his debate preparation in Henderson, Nevada, Obama broke off to visit a campaign field office. There, he joked with a volunteer about how his advisers were ‘keeping me indoors all the time’ to practice. ‘It’s a drag. They’re making me do my homework.’
Obama also decided to take a break to visit the Hoover Dam. ‘Its spectacular, and I’ve never seen it before,’ he told reporters during the visit, which came about because an aide had mentioned the dam was nearby. I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to go check it out”.’
Even before the debate, some advisers were worried that Obama, who had been distracted and detached during some of the sessions in which Senator John Kerry had played Romney, would have an off night.
But in his closing statement in Denver, Obama said that it had been ‘a terrific debate and I very much appreciate it’ – an upbeat comment that reflected his view that he had at the very least held his own against Romney.
But he then delivered a line that bemused his advisers: ‘You know, four years ago, I said that I’m not a perfect man and I wouldn’t be a perfect president. And that’s probably a promise that Governor Romney thinks I’ve kept.’
The Democrat said: ‘It was as bad as “likeable enough”. The President thought he was being bitingly sarcastic about what he saw as Romney’s overly-aggressive performance. But to your swing voter it was as if he was waving the white flag of surrender.’
His ‘likeable enough’ allusion was a reference to a Democratic primary debate in 2008 when Obama had said to his rival Hillary Clinton: ‘You’re likeable enough, Hillary’. At the time, Obama felt he was being light-hearted and casual but viewers saw it as Obama being arrogant and condescending.
The Democrat would not reveal what the attack lines were that Obama failed to deliver ‘because we may well see the Vice President using them against Ryan’.