WASHINGTON -– When Obama adviser David Plouffe walked into the spin room in Denver last week after the president's poor debate performance, there was little doubt that his boss had just stumbled badly.
But Plouffe spent the better part of a half-hour arguing the opposite. Romney "was on defense all night long," Plouffe insisted, surrounded by reporters standing three and four deep. Everybody knows that the job of surrogates in a spin room is to put the best face on their candidate's performance. But Plouffe's arguments didn't resemble reality.
"What Mitt Romney told the American people tonight is, I'm not going to ask anything from anybody like myself: millionaires and billionaires. I'm going to stick it to the middle class. Ok? He couldn't have been clearer about that," Plouffe said.
Plouffe was trying to bend reality to his view of the facts. But in fact, during the debate, Romney had stressed his intent to cut tax rates for middle-class Americans.
"My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people," Romney said. "Middle-income families are being crushed. And so the question is how to get them going again, and I’ve described it."
He said the same thing again moments later: "No tax cut that adds to the deficit. But I do want to reduce the burden being paid by middle-income Americans."
Obama was nonplussed during the debate. And his advisers and campaign spokespeople afterward devised a strategy to say that Romney was simply lying.
"I give him credit for a strong performance. I give him an 'F' for being honest with the American people," Obama adviser David Axelrod said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" the next day.
Plouffe, who made a rare appearance in the press cabin on Air Force One the day after the debate, went even further, calling Romney a liar.
"We thought it was important to let people know that someone who would lie to 50 million Americans, you should have some questions about whether that person should sit in the Oval Office," Plouffe said, understating the debate's broadcast audience by almost 20 million.
The liar tag was based largely on Romney's characterization of his tax plan. Despite the Obama campaign's howls of protest, there's an actual debate about whether Romney's plan would do what he says. It may be that he's promising too much, but it's not as cut and dry as the Obama campaign wants to make it sound.
"I also don’t think he won by lying," wrote Ezra Klein of the Washington Post. "He mostly danced around the ambiguities in his policies in a way that appeared to confound Obama."
Obama's campaign has characterized Romney's proposal as a $5 trillion tax cut that will do one of two things: explode the deficit or require higher taxes for the middle class.
Romney repeatedly and forcefully rebutted this assertion in the debate, and much of the public discussion over the last few days has centered around his tax plan.
Yet the Obama campaign's ferocious response since then has been motivated by more than just a disagreement over policy details. The president, Axelrod, Plouffe, campaign manager Jim Messina and others realized that Romney had done a good deal on Wednesday to tear up the nightmarish portrait of him that they have been painting for months.
Romney the out-of-touch, lame, blood-sucking elitist –- or the "wealthy plutocrat married to a known equestrian," as former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour jokingly put it -– morphed into Romney the optimistic, energetic, detail-oriented turnaround specialist. And with a good touch of empathy for the poor and working class to boot.
It didn't help that Obama couldn't bring himself to look up from his legal pad or to smile for most of the night.
Obama's top advisers could see that Romney had deconstructed the narrative they've been telling since the summer. And they know that much of winning over the voters who will decide a swing state like Ohio depends on whether those men and women feel like they can trust Romney. The story of each candidate is important, not just their 12-point plans for this or that subject area.
Plouffe and Axelrod have driven Romney's negatives up with attacks on his career in private equity, on his wealth, and on his refusal to release more than two years of tax returns. But Romney's debate performance did a lot to undo negative perceptions of him. Multiple polls on Sunday and Monday showed him gaining ground, and in some cases overtaking, Obama nationally and in key swing states.
A Public Policy Polling survey of Virginia voters showed Obama's lead had shrunk to three points from five points. It also showed Romney with a 10-point turnaround in his personal favorability rating, from 47 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval to a 52/44 rating.
Plouffe, in the spin room, was already practicing a version of the pep talk he has likely since delivered to nervous campaign staff, donors, maybe even the president himself. Essentially, it boiled down to a belief in repetition and message discipline.
"For you guys who have been in battleground states and spent time with the president, you understand what we have been communicating to the voters. Romney's tax cut plan is a problem for the middle class. We've been doing that for months," Plouffe said.
"So there's a consistency to the argument the president is making to the American people," Plouffe concluded.
In other words: we've pounded and pounded and pounded with the same effective message. And that's what we're going to continue to do.
But as the debate demonstrated, message, tactics and strategy only go as far as the candidate is willing to take them. And Obama did not deliver. There are two more debates where he will have to. And nobody doubts that the president will be more aggressive on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in New York. The X-factor is how Romney responds.
As for the details of Romney's tax plan, he says he would reduce individual tax rates for all incomes by 20 percent and cut the corporate rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. A combination of economic growth from a simpler, less onerous tax code and the closing of loopholes and deductions would add up to deficit neutrality, Romney argues.
The Obama campaign finds this ludicrous. But as CBS News' John Dickerson pointed out to Axelrod on Sunday, it's hard to call something a flat-out lie when the resulting argument involves which budget baseline you're working from.