CHICAGO (AP) — As senior campaign strategist David Axelrod prepared to address the media following President Barack Obama's lackluster performance in the first presidential debate, a thought went through his mind: "Can't someone else do this?"
"The audacity of (Mitt) Romney's repositioning in that debate was so remarkable I certainly had stuff to work with," Axelrod told an audience at the University of Chicago Monday. "But it wasn't something I looked forward to any more than I would a root canal."
The president's off-kilter night in Denver was one of the few blips in the president's re-election campaign, Axelrod said, adding jokingly that it was something the campaign did intentionally to insert some suspense into the race.
Axelrod said internal polling showed Obama with a 2 to 4 point lead over his Republican rival from February through November, and the veteran campaign advisor felt "confident throughout."
"I felt we had the best messenger and the best message," he said.
A graduate of the University of Chicago and a former political reporter, Axelrod has a political consulting firm in Chicago. He was a top Obama advisor during the 2008 campaign and in the White House before leaving to help lead the 2012 effort. In January, he will join the University of Chicago's new Institute of Politics as its inaugural director.
Axelrod said he believes the seeds Obama's re-election were planted on Election Day 2010, when Republicans made big gains in Congress by moving further to the right on issues such as immigration. That required any Republican presidential candidate to move to the right as well to become the party's nominee.
Romney did just that, saying during the GOP primary he supported self-deportation and would veto the DREAM Act, which would make college more attainable for illegal immigrants. Those positions hurt Romney in the general election, when Latino voters overwhelmingly supported Obama.
Axelrod said the Obama campaign also benefitted from a strong social media presence, hundreds of focus groups with swing voters that helped the campaign home in on key issues and messaging, and the compilation of huge amounts of data that helped the campaign identify and register likely Obama voters around the country.
There were few surprises this time around, he said. But one was Romney's choice of a running mate.
By choosing Congressman Paul Ryan, Romney played to his base at a time when he needed to be broadening his appeal, Axelrod said. He said he had expected Romney to choose Ohio Gov. Rob Portman or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty instead.