Seven minutes into the first presidential debate, the mood turned from tense to grim inside the room at the University of Denver where staff members for President Barack Obama were following the encounter. Top aides monitoring focus groups - voters who registered their minute-by-minute reactions with the turn of a dial - watched as enthusiasm for Mitt Romney spiked. "We are getting bombed on Twitter," announced Stephanie Cutter, a deputy campaign manager, while tracking the early postings by political analysts and journalists whom the Obama campaign viewed as critical in setting debate perceptions.
By the time Obama had waded through a convoluted answer about health care - "He's not mentioning voucher-care?" someone called out - a pall had fallen over the room. When the president closed by declaring, "this was a terrific debate," his re-election team grimaced. There was the obligatory huddle to discuss how to explain his performance to the nation, and then a moment of paralysis: No one wanted to go to the spin room and speak with reporters.
Romney's advisers monitored the debate up the hall from the Obama team, as well as at campaign headquarters in Boston. Giddy smiles flashed across their faces as their focus groups showed the same results.
"Boy, the president is off tonight," said Stuart Stevens, the senior Romney strategist, sounding mystified, according to aides in the room. Russ Schriefer, a senior adviser, immediately began planning television spots based entirely on clips from the debate. As it drew to a close, Gail Gitcho, Romney's communications director in Boston, warned surrogates heading out to television studios: "No chest thumping."
The Oct. 3 debate sharply exposed Obama's vulnerabilities and forced the president and his advisers to work to reclaim the campaign over a grueling 30 days, ending with his triumph Tuesday. After a summer of growing confidence, Obama suddenly confronted the possibility of a loss that would diminish his legacy and threaten his signature achievement, the health care law. He emerged newly combative, newly contrite and newly willing to recognize how his disdain for Romney had blinded him to his opponent's strengths and ability to inflict damage.
After watching a videotape of his debate performance, Obama began calling panicked donors and supporters to reassure them he would do better. "This is on me," the president said, again and again.
Obama, who had dismissed warnings about being caught off guard in the debate, told his advisers that he would now accept and deploy the prewritten attack lines that he had sniffed at earlier. "If I give up a couple of points of likability and come across as snarky, so be it," Obama told his staff.
As his campaign began an all-out assault on Romney's credibility and conservative views, the president soon was denouncing Romney's budget proposals as a "sketchy deal" and charging that the Republican nominee was not telling Americans the truth.
Obama recognized that to a certain extent, he had walked into a trap that Romney's advisers had anticipated: His antipathy toward Romney - which advisers described as deeper than what Obama had felt for John McCain in 2008 - led the incumbent to underestimate his opponent as he began moving to the center before the debate audience of millions of television viewers.
But as concerned as the White House was during the last 30 days of the campaign, its polls never showed Obama slipping behind Romney, aides said. The president was helped in no small part by the tremendous amount of money the campaign built up, which had permitted him to pound his Republican rival before he had ever had a chance to fully introduce himself to the nation.
That was just one of several ways that Obama's campaign operations, some unnoticed by Romney's aides in Boston, helped save the president's candidacy. In Chicago, the campaign recruited a team of behavioral scientists to build an extraordinarily sophisticated database packed with names of millions of undecided voters and potential supporters. The ever-expanding list let the campaign find and register new voters who fit the demographic pattern of Obama backers and methodically track their views through thousands of telephone calls every night.
That allowed the Obama campaign not only to alter the very nature of the electorate, making it younger and less white, but also to create a portrait of shifting voter allegiances. The power of this operation stunned Romney's aides on election night, as they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola County, Fla. "It's one thing to say you are going to do it: It's another thing to actually get out there and do it," said Brian Jones, a senior adviser.
In the last days of the campaign, Romney cast himself as the candidate that he may have wanted to be all along: Moderate in tone, an agent of change who promised to bring bipartisan cooperation back to Washington, sounding very much like Barack Obama in 2008.
But he could never overcome the harm that Obama's advertising had done over the summer or the weight of the ideological baggage he carried from the primary. On Tuesday night, a crestfallen Romney and his family watched as the television networks showed him losing all but one battleground state.
Even as the networks declared Obama the winner, Romney, who had earlier told reporters he had written only a victory speech, paused before the walk downstairs from his hotel room in Boston. It was 11:30 pm, and Romney field teams in Ohio, Virginia and Florida called in, saying the race was too close for the candidate to give up. At least four planes were ready to go, and aides had bags packed for recount battles in narrowly divided states. Bob White, a close Romney friend and adviser, was prepared to tell the waiting crowd that Romney would not yet concede.
But then, Romney quietly decided it was over. "It's not going to happen," he said.
As Ann Romney cried softly, he headed down to deliver his speech, ending his second, and presumably last, bid for the White House. Four decades earlier, his father and inspiration, George Romney, a former Michigan governor had failed in his own such quest.
By the end of the 30 days, after Air Force One carried Obama on an almost round-the-clock series of rallies, the president had reverted back to the agent of change battling the forces of the status quo, drawing contrasts between himself and Romney with an urgency that had been absent earlier in the race. Obama had returned, if not to the candidate that he was in 2008, as a man hungry for four more years to pursue his agenda in the White House.
A DIFFICULT SEPTEMBER
As the summer came to a close, Romney campaign was stuck in a tense debate over how to rescue a struggling candidacy. On some nights, it did not even bother with the daily tracking poll. Why waste money on more bad news? Obama's attack on Romney's role at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded, was in full swing, the Democratic convention had been an unequivocal boost for the president, and a videotape had surfaced that caught Romney at a private fundraiser saying that 47 percent of the nation did not pay taxes, a line that reinforced Democrats' efforts to portray him as an out-of-touch elitist.
"We had struggled pretty dramatically in September," said Neil Newhouse, Romney's pollster.
"The 47 percent remark came out, and that was on top of the bounce that Obama got from his convention, so needless to say September was not our best month. It showed in our data. It was grim."
There was, advisers decided, one last opportunity on the horizon: the presidential debate in Denver.
Stevens argued that Obama's dislike of Romney would lead the president to underestimate him.
"They think there's something intellectually inferior there," he said later. Romney's advisers also believed that Obama had demonized Romney to such an extent that their candidate would benefit when judged against the caricature.
In August, Romney began testing one-liners on friends flying with him on his campaign plane. On issue after issue, Romney led discussions on how to frame his answers, to move away from the conservative tone of his primary contests in front of the largest audience he would have as a candidate.
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio was recruited to play Obama, and he embraced the role, even anticipating how the president would open his first debate, which fell on his wedding anniversary. "I've got to tell you, tonight's a really special night," said Portman, playing Obama. "I see my sweetie out there, boy, 20 years ago."
(Romney's advisers broke out in laughter when the real Obama opened with a similar line, and nodded approvingly when a very prepared Romney countered with a gracious response that even Democrats said put Obama off balance.)
Nothing had been left to chance: Romney put on full makeup and did his final practice in a room set up to replicate, down to the lighting and temperature, the hall where he would meet Obama.
On the Sunday before the debate, a group of top advisers and elected Republican officials from across the country, calling themselves the War Council, gathered in Boston to reassure Romney after his rough month - essentially saying "this is a place in the race, but it isn't a destiny" as Beth Myers, a senior adviser, put it - and to boost his confidence. George W. Bush phoned Romney, too. Pointing to his own history, he predicted that Obama would fumble, according to aides.
Democrats advising Obama saw the same peril for the president in the first debate that Romney's aides did. Ronald A. Klain, a Democratic strategist who has overseen debate preparation for presidential candidates for nearly 20 years, warned Obama at his very first debate session, a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room on a sweltering day in mid-July, that incumbent presidents almost invariably lose their first debate.
"It's easier for a candidate to schedule the time to prepare; it's easy for the challenger to get away; the president has competing needs," Klain told Obama, according to aides who witnessed the exchange.
Ken Mehlman, who had managed Bush's re-election campaign in 2004, ran into one of Obama's advisers at a party, and warned him that presidents are not used to being challenged, and unlike candidates, are out of practice at verbal jousting. Romney had gone through 20 debates over the past year.
Obama showed no interest in watching the Republican debates. But his aides studied them closely, and concluded that Romney was a powerful debater, hard to intimidate and fast to throw out assertions that would later prove wrong or exaggerated. At one debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized Romney for having praised Arne Duncan, the education secretary, days earlier. Romney flatly denied it, leaving Perry speechless.
At the White House, Obama's communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, took note of that moment, intending to mention it to Obama. He would later fault himself for failing to fully understand "the magnitude of the challenge" Romney's debate style presented.
Obama displayed little concern. When he went to a resort outside Las Vegas for several days of debate preparation in September, his impatience with the exercise was evident when he escaped for an excursion to the Hoover Dam.
Klain and David Axelrod, a senior strategist, told Obama that he seemed distracted, but he shrugged them off. "I'll be there on game day," he said. "I'm a game day player."
Shortly after the debate began, Obama's aides realized they had made their own mistakes in advising Obama to avoid combative exchanges that might sacrifice the good will many Americans felt toward him. In Obama's mock debates with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Kerry drew Obama into a series of intense exchanges, and Axelrod decided that they were damaging to the president.
In 90 minutes, Obama crystallized what had been gnawing concerns among many Americans about the president. He came across, as Obama's advisers told him over the next few days, as professorial, arrogant, entitled and detached from the turmoil tearing the nation. He appeared to be disdainful not only of his opponent but of the political process itself. Obama showed no passion for the job, and allowed Romney to explode the characterization of him as a wealthy, job-destroying venture capitalist that the Obama campaign had spent months creating.
The voter-analysis database back in Chicago noted a precipitous drop in perceptions of Obama among independent voters, starting that night and lasting for four days, long before the public polls picked it up. Voters who had begun turning to Obama were newly willing to give Romney another look.
What was arguably the most dismal night of Obama's political career could hardly have come at a worse time: Early voting was under way in some states. Absentee ballots were on voters' coffee tables that very night.
After the debate, Obama called Axelrod on his way back to the hotel room. He had read the early reviews on his iPad.
"I guess the consensus is that we didn't have a very good night," Obama told Axelrod.
"That is the consensus," Axelrod said.
For the next 30 days, Romney and his advisers tried to capitalize on Obama's mistakes. And Romney continued his drift toward the center, softening his language on abortion and immigration from the positions that had defined him during the Republican primary. It was something that the White House had expected he would do in the summer. Perhaps most important, the debate gave him a swagger, confidence and presidential bearing that had been absent.
Romney soon recognized the scope of his accomplishment. He flew from Denver to Virginia for a rally the next day, and as the motorcade headed toward the event, there was so much traffic that Romney and his top advisers thought there must have been an accident. In fact, the roads were jammed with people on their way to see him.
A STORM'S EFFECT
It was clear that Hurricane Sandy was going to upend Obama's president's final week of campaigning, but aides in Chicago were determined to squeeze in one more visit to Florida. It almost became a calamity.
To get ahead of the storm, the president flew to Orlando on Oct. 28, the evening before a morning event. But overnight, the storm intensified and accelerated. Well before dawn, the Air Force One crew told the president's advisers that if he was going to beat the storm back to Washington, he had to leave at once. His aides blanched at the image of Obama stuck in sunny Florida as the storm roared up the Eastern Seaboard.
The White House announced the change of plans at 6:45 am. The president returned to the White House at 11:07 am. and went directly into the Situation Room, canceling his political events. The decision was costly to a campaign so dependent on organization: Obama used his rallies to collect supporters' telephone numbers and email addresses.
Once the storm struck, it was more of a problem for Romney. It put him in the position of struggling to explain the skepticism he had expressed during the Republican primary about a federal role in disaster relief. Even worse, the hurricane pushed him off the stage at a crucial time.
In Boston, Romney's aides broke out in a chorus of groans as they watched on television as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey offered effusive praise of the president's handling of the storm. They viewed it as a self-serving act of disloyalty from a man whom they had expected to deploy that very weekend on Romney's behalf. The praise of Obama from a Republican governor came at the same time Romney had been portraying Obama as partisan and polarizing.
The same week, the president's campaign released an advertisement in which another Republican, Colin Powell, a former secretary of state, endorsed Obama. The ad, Obama's aides said, produced a spike of support from independent voters. (Obama's aides grabbed the clip from a television interview with Powell, deciding not to chance asking him for permission).
Romney was finding Ohio, a state central to his victory, a stubborn target, as Obama benefited from the auto industry rescue he championed and that Romney had opposed. The Romney campaign sought to undermine Obama with an advertisement misleadingly implying that Jeep was moving jobs from Ohio to China. By every measure, the ad backfired, drawing attacks by leaders of auto companies that employed many of the blue-collar voters that Romney was trying to reach.
The futility of that effort was apparent outside the sprawling Jeep assembly plant in Toledo, which had just had a $500 million renovation for production of a new line of vehicles, a project requiring 1,100 new workers.
"Everyone here knows someone who works at Jeep," Jim Wessel, a supply representative making a sales visit. He said no one would believe the ad. Speaking of Obama's efforts to rescue the auto industry, he said, "I can just tell you I'm glad he did it."
Romney was running out of states. He made an impulsive run on Pennsylvania, chasing what his aides said were tightening polls there. Romney had spent little time or money there before roaring in during the campaign's final hours.
On the last weekend of the race, Romney scheduled a rally in Bucks County. Supporters began arriving at 2 pm. But Romney's plane was delayed, and as the hours rolled on - and the temperatures dropped - dozens of people were blocked by the Secret Service as they sought to leave. Romney arrived to a scene of angry, cold supporters.
That Tuesday, Romney lost the state by 5 percentage points and watched Obama hold a 50,000-vote lead in Florida - a state that he had once been confident of winning.
(Michael Barbaro, Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker contributed reporting.)
© 2012, The New York Times News Service