WASHINGTON -- When Barack Obama ran for president four years ago, his campaign was remarkable for its lack of internal dissension. He was "No Drama Obama," unruffled and cool, and his team was, too.
But after last week's disastrous debate performance, Democrats in and around the president's camp are privately pointing fingers at each other for Obama's failure in Round One in Denver.
What might be called the "professional" team of Washington-based Democrats, who have a long history of prepping candidates, thought they had done a fine job of getting the president ready. "We hit him with everything -- every anecdote, every line, every different type of Mitt Romney that exists, and there are many of them," said one person familiar with the team's work, who declined to speak on the record because he is still involved.
On the last of three days of prep sessions, they thought that the president had given a very sharp performance in his faux face-off with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the role of a pushy Romney.
But between the last session and the next day, some insiders say, the "Chicago inner circle" of Obama's closest friends and longtime aides, led by David Axelrod and David Plouffe, had separate meetings with the president. It seemed, at least to the Washington "pros," that the Chicago crew tamped down the plan for an aggressive stance toward Romney.
"I don't know what happened because we weren't in that room," said one debate pro.
Axelrod denied that such a post-prep innermost-circle meeting had taken place. "Completely false," he told The Huffington Post. "We were never apart."
"Kerry was great," he added.
Indeed, accounts of the debate prep have Kerry doing an energetic and varied job of pressing the president on substance and tactics.
Another school of thought advanced privately by some Democrats, and publicly by Romney strategist Dan Senor, is that Kerry was the wrong man for the job. Why? The theory is that he would like to be secretary of state in a second Obama term and therefore would not have wanted to offend the president by pressing him too hard.
This is preposterous on several levels. For one, Obama would be lucky to get Kerry in a second term, if there is one. For another, Kerry is one of the party's most experienced and successful debaters, widely respected for the skills he honed in the rough world of Boston politics. Third, the last thing Kerry would want to do -- assuming that he is interested in the State job -- is to send Obama out unprepared.
And by all accounts, he did get under Obama's skin when he played the Interrupting Romney in debate prep. "The president was pissed," said a member of the debate-prep team. "He doesn't like to be confronted, and Kerry was in his face."
As Team Obama prepares for the rest of the debates, including Thursday's meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan, Axelrod & Co. are trying to keep the team together and happy.
Kerry is back in the role of Romney; the same pro team, including Washington lawyers Ron Klain and Bob Barnett, is in place.
The only question mark is what role Obama will play. For his reelection's sake, it must be more energetic, upbeat and focused than the one we saw last week.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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