By Tom Cohen, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) – President Barack Obama insists he’s ahead but is running like the underdog, adopting a street-fighting posture and campaigning himself hoarse across the country. Republican challenger Mitt Romney seeks to make his election seem inevitable and calls Obama’s campaign desperate.
A role reversal by the candidates that occurred over the course of the three presidential debates is continuing in the final stage of the race, portending frenzied politicking until voters deliver the verdict on November 6.
For Obama, that means more campaign swings like the two-day trip to eight states this week — including his “all-nighter” on Air Force One, as well as events targeting younger audiences. He has appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and planned an MTV interview on Friday.
It also means increasingly caustic attacks on Romney, including his reference to the former Massachusetts governor as a “bullshitter” in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine to be published after the election.
Romney, meanwhile, tries to exude the air of a president-to-be, continuing his campaign’s constant assault on Obama’s presidency but presenting himself as above the fray of political mudslinging.
In a new twist to his standard stump speech, Romney has co-opted Obama’s campaign theme of 2008 by declaring himself the candidate of change in contrast to the status quo of what he called four more years of failed policies under the president.
“Four years ago, candidate Obama spoke to the scale of the times,” Romney said Friday in Iowa, one of the handful of swing states that will decide the election. “Today, he shrinks from it, trying instead to distract our attention from the biggest issues to the smallest — from characters on Sesame Street and silly word games to misdirected personal attacks he knows are false. The president’s campaign falls far short of the magnitude of these times.”
He referred to attack lines in the Obama stump speech that target Romney’s shifting positions on issues as “Romnesia” and characterize the GOP contender’s proposed cuts in government funding for public television as an assault on “Big Bird.”
To Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, both candidates now devote their campaign efforts to motivating core supporters to get out and vote, rather than trying to persuade a shrinking number of uncommitted voters.
“I think each side is focusing more on their base than on the undecided,” West told CNN, noting that after months of the campaign deluge, “it’s so hard to know what at this point is going to persuade people to make up their minds.”
In addition, Obama “has shifted to underdog status and Romney is playing the role of frontrunner,” West added, citing the dynamic of the debates for the change in campaign postures.
Obama’s lackluster performance against an aggressive Romney in the first debate in Denver on October 3 gave the challenger a validating boost that has brought him even or in some cases ahead of the president in the polls.
After the initial drubbing, Obama came out aggressively in the second and third debates to win both in the eyes of analysts and public opinion, and he has subsequently maintained the combative posture.
“I think it is a reaction to the tightening surveys after the first debate,” West said. “Obama clearly lost his political advantage, so he’s had to recast himself as the underdog.”
Romney, meanwhile, is “trying to create a sense of inevitability about his campaign,” according to West.
“When you’re the challenger, you run as a candidate of change,” noted CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger. “President Obama last time ran as a candidate of change. There was no incumbent, but he was all about change. This time, Mitt Romney is all about change, promising big change on the campaign trail.”
Romney is benefiting from his “great” first debate and strong fundraising and poll numbers it spawned, Borger said, adding: “He had a good October.”
In response, Obama has sharpened his criticism of Romney’s proposals as backward and outdated to exploit his advantage among women, African-American, Latino and gay voters.
“You can choose to turn back the clock 50 years for women and immigrants and gays, or in this election, you can stand up for that basic principle enshrined in our founding documents that all of us are created equal, all of us endowed with certain inalienable rights by our Creator; that it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight, abled or disabled — we all have a place in America,” the raw-voiced president shouted Thursday night in Cleveland, eliciting cheers and chants.
Obama also regularly ridicules Romney’s foreign policy stances as wrong and misguided, and he points out what he calls his opponents constantly shifting positions for political gain.
“We joke about Romnesia, but it’s not funny because it speaks to something serious,” Obama said Thursday. “It has to do with trust.”
In the Rolling Stone interview, Obama commented on how young children who tend to support him are hard to fool, adding: “They look at the other guy and say, well, that’s a bullshitter. I can tell.”
The Romney campaign immediately fired back, saying: “President Obama is rattled and on the defensive. He’s running on empty and has nothing left but attacks and insults. It’s unfortunate he has to close the final days of his campaign this way.”
Romney, meanwhile, has sounded like Obama of four years ago on the campaign trail in describing the choice facing voters.
Blaming Obama for continuing high unemployment and sluggish economic growth, Romney made a point Friday of challenging the president’s contention that his policies prevented a depression and have pulled the nation out of recession he inherited.
“The problem with the Obama economy is not what he inherited; it is with the misguided policies that slowed the recovery, and caused millions of Americans to endure lengthy unemployment and poverty,” Romney said.
He called the election “a choice between the status quo — going forward with the same policies of the last four years — or instead, choosing real change, change that offers promise, promise that the future will be better than the past.”
West said Obama can benefit from a more aggressive approach in messaging and campaigning of running as the underdog, but he warned that Romney would take a risk by relying on perceived or claimed momentum.
“I think the riskiest position in a close race is to try sit on a lead and make an argument about momentum,” West said. “Momentum is very nebulous. Romney has done well over the last few weeks in the polls, but that can change fast.”