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Can Obama Play From Behind?

Democrats are now thinking about the vice presidential debate a bit differently than they might have expected just a week ago. Rather than Vice President Biden being given the task of merely not losing ground to Paul Ryan, he is now being asked to win it so as to offset the impact of last week’s disastrous showing by the head of his ticket in the first presidential debate. It remains to be seen whether that is likely or even possible, and we’ll have more about the veep matchup later today and tomorrow. But whatever winds up happening tomorrow night, placing this much emphasis on a Biden win puts the Obama campaign in a tight spot. It also raises the question of how they will react if, as is most likely, that debate, as well as the two presidential confrontations that will follow, doesn’t produce a clear-cut victory for the incumbents.

Both in 2008 and throughout all of 2012 up until this point, the president has had the luxury of running ahead of the competition. If the current trend, in which the national polls are now showing Romney with a slight lead in the race, continues, we will find out how he does when he is trailing. Based on the evidence of the past week as the Romney surge began, that is not an encouraging prospect for the Democrats.

It should be remembered that the president’s greatest strength doesn’t come from spinning weak economic statistics or from attacks on his opponents. His election in 2008 was the product of harnessing the positive feelings of Americans about an inspiring challenger whose victory would go some way toward righting the historic wrongs of the country’s legacy of racism. It is that historic status that is the foundation for President Obama’s positive personal image and a major deterrent to wavering independents and disillusioned Democrats crossing over to the GOP.

The remnants of the sentiment that drove that “hope and change” election dovetail nicely with the Democrats’ attempt to place the blame for a poor economy on George W. Bush rather than on the man who has been in office for four years. But it is far from clear if that rather flimsy argument will work as well for a candidate who is faltering as it does for one who seems in command.

Though the Democrats have been running a breathtakingly negative campaign against Mitt Romney all year, they’ve turned up the heat in the days since the debate. The barrage of ads calling Romney a “liar” because a liberal journalist quotes a liberal think tank that believes his tax plan will somehow require a middle class tax increase, even though there is no such provision in it, is one example. The one about Romney wanting to kill Big Bird is another.

The problem with these ads is not just that they are inaccurate but that they reek of desperation. This sort of heavy-handed sliming is intended to reduce the GOP candidate’s favorability ratings, but they may also have the unintended effect of making Obama look scared and nasty. That is exactly the sort of sentiment that is likely to kill any remnant of awe for the president’s historic status that is essential to his re-election.

Far from such tactics erasing Romney’s bounce, it is this sort of thing that may help transform it from a momentary surge to a fundamental change in the dynamic of this election.

In 2008, Obama showed the country that he knew how to play when ahead as he avoided mistakes and complacency and cruised to a most decisive victory. But by showing up unprepared in Denver while Romney demonstrated his command of the issues, the president put himself in a position where he may well have to spend the next month trying to catch Romney. That is a very different skill and requires drastically different tactics than the ones the Democrats have so far employed in this election.

While this situation may well be altered in the coming days and weeks, if both the candidate and his campaign are temperamentally unsuited to playing from behind, the debate loss may turn out to be a bigger problem than the president could ever have imagined.