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Obama campaign conducts damage control after debate, as jobs report looms

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Oct. 4, 2012: President Obama speaks at a campaign rally in Denver. (AP)

President Obama launched into damage-control mode Thursday, as he tried to smooth over his rocky debate performance from the night before while bracing for the next potential game-changer – the monthly unemployment report.

The Labor Department on Friday is set to release the September jobs numbers, which include an update to the unemployment rate. The rate has slowly edged down to 8.1 percent, but the reports all summer have reflected weak hiring month after month.

Obama, trying to back up his onstage claim Wednesday night that the economy is on the rebound, needs to show some positive stats on the board, and Friday’s report is the last of two monthly snapshots before the November election.

Mitt Romney, at their first debate in Denver, had hammered the president over the state of the economy and declared: “The status quo is not going to cut it."

Coming out of the debate, the Obama campaign said it would "make adjustments" going forward and tried to get back on the offensive.

At a Denver rally Thursday afternoon complete with teleprompters, Obama ripped into Romney as he tried to brush himself off and reassure supporters.

"When I got onto the stage I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney," Obama said. "But it couldn't have been Mitt Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. The fellow on stage last night said he didn't know anything about that." 

The president ticked off a string of complaints about Romney's on-stage claims before adding: "The man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable to the real Mitt Romney's decisions." 

Obama's campaign complemented the rally with a conference call in which adviser David Axelrod said Romney was "completely untethered from the truth." 

But the Romney campaign quickly fired back, accusing Obama of doubling down on "false attacks." 

"In full damage-control mode, President Obama today offered no defense of his record and no vision for the future," spokesman Ryan Williams said. "Rather than a plan to fix our economy, President Obama simply offered more false attacks and renewed his call for job-killing tax hikes." 

The explanations from the Obama campaign about what went wrong came as observers from both sides of the political spectrum roundly judged Romney the winner. 

The Republican nominee was quick on his feet, polished and feisty as he repeatedly cut off the moderator and challenged his opponent on the facts. 

Axelrod suggested on the conference call that Obama wasn't doing enough fact-checking on Romney's statements. 

"Obviously moving forward, we're going to take a hard look at this and we're going to have to make some judgments as to where to draw the lines in these debates and how to use our time," he said, claiming Obama did not view the debate as a performance as Romney did. 

Romney was heading next to the battleground of Virginia on Thursday, while Obama headed to Wisconsin following his rally in Colorado. It's unclear whether Romney's performance will move the polls, but he was clearly looking for a race-shaking performance having slipped in recent weeks in several swing-state surveys. The race could be given a jolt again on Friday with the release of the Labor Department's monthly unemployment numbers. On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that factory orders dropped in August by the most in three years. 

Each candidate strived throughout the 90-minute debate to appeal to the middle-class voters who likely will decide the election five weeks from now. While Romney accused Obama of pushing "trickle-down government," Obama accused Romney of wanting to "double down on the top-down policies" that led to the financial crisis. 

The debate, which focused exclusively on domestic matters, was one of three presidential debates set for October and marked Romney's first opportunity to go toe to toe with the president. 

The debate was tense at times, with the candidates standing just feet from each other and often cutting off the moderator, PBS' Jim Lehrer. Romney appeared to take a consistently more aggressive tone on stage, though the overall tenor of the debate marked a step back from what has become a bitter and nasty campaign in the closing weeks. 

Each candidate came armed with studies and stats to bolster his respective position -- but the central goal was to broaden their appeal before a national audience hurting for jobs and make the case for why their plans would boost growth. 

Obama argued that the issue to consider is not "where we've been" but "where we're going." 

"We've begun to fight our way back," Obama said. He accused Romney of wanting to roll back regulations and implement tax cuts skewed toward the wealthy and reverse those gains. 

But Romney, citing the millions who have gone on food stamps and hit the unemployment lines in the last four years, argued that "the status quo is not going to cut it." 

"We know that the path we're taking is not working. It's time for a new path," Romney said. 

He said Obama's push to raise taxes on top earners amounts to a tax on the very small businesses needed for a robust economic recovery. 

"You raise taxes and you kill jobs," Romney said. "I don't want to kill jobs in this environment." 

On taxes, though, Romney sought to wipe away the caricature that the Obama campaign has been drawing these last two years -- of Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire who's looking to make the rich richer with his tax cut plan. 

Obama again argued Wednesday night that the Republican nominee is pushing a $5 trillion tax cut plan that would skew toward the wealthy. 

To offset that, Obama claimed, Romney would have to either add to the deficit or raise the burden on the middle class. 

"It's math, it's arithmetic," Obama said 

Romney, though, insisted the 20 percent across-the-board rate cut he's pushing is not nearly as sweeping as the president describes. 

"I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut," Romney said. Further, he pledged to hold to his promise that it would be deficit-neutral and not hurt the middle class. 

"There'll be no tax cut that adds to the deficit. I want to underline that -- no tax cut that adds to the deficit," Romney said. He added: "I will not under any circumstance raise taxes on middle-income families." 

Romney addressed his tax plan after saying in an interview that one way to offset the rate cut would be to cap deductions at perhaps $17,000 -- and have taxpayers choose what deductions they want to take. The details may have been meant to undercut the Obama campaign's claims that he has not been specific. 

The two candidates debate next on Oct. 16 and for the last time on Oct. 22. The only vice presidential debate is set for Oct. 11.