Mitt Romney's campaign indicated Wednesday it has no plans to rein in the GOP nominee during the third and final presidential debate.
Romney's aggressive performance Tuesday night — directly challenging President Obama and quarreling with moderator Candy Crowley — had Democrats and even some Republicans arguing he came across as too assertive, which could turn off undecided voters.
But Team Romney claims their candidate won the night with his argument on core economic issues, which are the leading concern among voters. And Republican strategists say that Romney has more leeway to adopt the role of the antagonist because it's Obama who is so heavily reliant on personal favorability to buoy his poll numbers.
These Republicans go on to suggest that Obama's aggressive posturing — necessitated by a largely listless performance in the first debate — could undermine some of his crucial likability advantage among undecided and swing voters.
But an in-your-face approach is a high-risk strategy, something the GOP acknowledged in the debate aftermath. Karl Rove, former President Bush's top political adviser, told Fox News that Romney "made the mistake of getting a little bit too engaged" with the president throughout the contest.
The biggest stumble, strategists on both sides of the aisle say, was when Romney aggressively went after the president's language on Libya, only to be corrected by moderator Candy Crowley. Although Romney allies have questioned the fairness of Crowley's fact check in the aftermath of the debate, the moment undermined Romney's argument, and left the candidate appearing overly aggressive.
Romney's former debate coach, Bret O'Donnell, told Fox News the candidate "went down the wrong path" when he tried to "litigate out what happened in the Rose Garden." And conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer agreed, saying that in a "tough fight" reminiscent of Frazier-Ali, the president won "on points."
The GOP nominee also seemed, at times, to be unwilling to take direction from Crowley, who at different points asked him to take a seat or stop talking so she could move to the next question — just to see Romney routinely ignore the instruction. The squabble over debate time spilled over into one of his confrontations with Obama, which resulted in Romney snapping at the president at one point: "You’ll get your chance in a moment, I’m still speaking."
Democrats were giddy to pile on, with Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner calling Romney's performance "rattled" and "awkward."
"Romney, certainly at moments, was aggressive, and that's been a trait of his in previous debates," said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. "The difference last night was he came across as kind of irritated and peeved and kind of a bully, and when the president at times punched back I think that really unnerved him."
But a defiant Romney insisted Wednesday that it was the president who was on his heels after failing to articulate an economic vision for his second term.
"I have to be honest with you," Romney said, speaking at a rally in Virginia Beach. "I love these debates. These things are great."
And campaign aides repeatedly pointed to a CNN snap poll conducted shortly after the debate that showed the candidate with a lead on the economy, taxes, and healthcare.
“Gov. Romney won last night's debate because he shared his plan of how he would lead the country to a real recovery and clearly laid out the case why America can’t afford four more years of the last four year,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “President Obama only had attacks to offer because he has no explanation for the failures of his economic policies or his lack of prescriptions for the future. “
Republicans also noted that the president was combative at times, interrupting Crowley and pointing his finger in Romney’s face. They argue that for a president whose brand is built around uniting the country and maintaining a positive veneer, his debate performance may have seemed jarring.
“His being that assertive obviously fired up his base, but we just don’t know how it played with independent, persuadable voters,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said. “We know that when it came to substantive issues like the economy and deficits, Romney came out ahead.”
And Republicans believe Romney has a unique opportunity to correct his misstep on the Libya question in the upcoming foreign policy debate, while knowing that the president is looking to undermine Romney’s argument by claiming that the administration had always considered the attack to be terrorism.
“I think the reason he lost stylistically on Libya was just because of the framework of the argument, meaning that he became somewhat agitated over Obama’s insistence that he did say it was an act of terror,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
“Next time, in those heated moments, you just have to be sure to catch your breath and be very careful about what comes next and what’s around the corner. Obama is going to try to trip up Romney again, but he’ll be well prepared.”
Unsurprisingly, Democrats didn't agree that Obama should be concerned about alienating swing voters with his own aggressiveness.
“When Romney plays the role of a bully or is a tough guy and the people on the receiving end kind of let it go, then the reaction from the news media and the viewers is Romney’s tough or the other person is weak,” said Thornell. “When the person on the receiving end punches back harder, then Romney’s bullying ricochets back on himself.”