By JULIE PACE
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama sought Wednesday to reassure hand-wringing Democrats in the wake of his lackluster first debate, declaring, "I got this."
Party loyalists, in Washington and in battleground states, are fretting that Obama's campaign has been slow to rebound after his debate last week against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. They're worried that the Democratic ticket isn't being aggressive enough in blocking Romney's new pivot to the political center. And they fear Romney's recent effort to show a softer side gives him an opening with female voters, who are crucial to the president's re-election prospects.
"I'm not feeling very positive," said Awilda Marquez, a prominent Democrat in Colorado. "I know that it's only the first debate, but he can't seem to change the relentless negative coverage. Romney has been able to take control."
Her nervousness was echoed by other Democrats in interviews across the country just before the next opportunity to get the Obama campaign back on track - Vice President Joe Biden's debate Thursday against Republican Paul Ryan.
Obama's campaign, seeking to address some of the concerns, launched a fresh critique of Romney Wednesday for saying he wouldn't pursue abortion-related legislation as president. Obama aides accused the Republican of "hiding" his positions of earlier in the year in order to gain women's votes.
The president's team says no major changes are expected in his own re-election strategy. Nevertheless, the president and his aides are seeking to reassure anxious Democrats that key factors are still in their favor.
"By next week, I think a lot of the hand-wringing will be complete because we're going to go ahead and win this thing," Obama said in an interview with radio host Tom Joyner. Projecting confidence, Obama said, "I got this."
The president appears to maintain a narrow lead in polling in many battleground states and has more pathways than Romney to reach the 270 Electoral College votes required to win the White House. Also, more Democrats than Republicans are registered to vote in swing states like Florida and Nevada. And last Friday's dip in the nation's unemployment rate to 7.8 percent gave some credence to Obama's core argument that the economy is slowly but surely recovering.
But there's little doubt that the burst of momentum Obama enjoyed last month has come to a halt following the first debate. That's given Romney ample opportunity to rebound from a dismal September with just four weeks until Election Day and millions of Americans already casting early votes. Polls taken after the debate show the race tightening nationally and in key states, though both parties say the president maintains an edge in such crucial states as Ohio and Virginia.
The rumblings in the Democratic ranks focus largely on whether the campaign has been aggressive enough coming out of the first debate, particularly in accusing Romney of lying about his positions and abandoning the conservative policies he embraced during the GOP primary.
Several strategists said they were perplexed that the campaign, nearing $1 billion in fundraising, wasn't churning out television advertisements juxtaposing clips of Romney from earlier in the year with his comments during the debate. That's allowing Romney, they say, to get away with shifting to the center.
"I don't believe you ever let a charge go unanswered, so in that respect I wish they were more forceful," said Chuck Ardo, a former spokesman for ex-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
Other Democrats fear the debate fallout is leading to softening support for the president among women, long one of his strengths.
Romney is making a clear play for female voters coming out of the debate, sprinkling personal anecdotes into his speeches in an attempt to appear more empathetic. The Republican also said this week that he would not pursue any abortion-related legislation if elected.
Obama aides dispute much of the criticism of their tactics, pointing to their rapid response to Romney's apparent shift on abortion.
"We're not saying he's changed his mind on these issues," said Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager. "We're saying he's trying to cover up his beliefs."
The president's support among female registered voters dropped 5 percentage points following the debate, according to Gallup surveys. But he still leads Romney 51 percent to 43 percent among women. The Republican's support among registered female voters is up 2 points since the debate.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg raised alarms this week about the potential for softening in Obama's support among women. He said his post-debate research found unmarried women in particular were not swayed by Obama's economic arguments but were open to Romney's approach.
"There was a positive response of these voters to Romney identifying with the middle class and their struggle and a very strong response to Romney's five-point economic plan," Greenberg said.
That marked a shift from last month, according to the pollster. Many unmarried women responded positively to Obama's message during the Democratic convention and were particularly offended by Romney's comments in a leaked fundraising video about 47 percent of voters who don't pay federal income tax and feel they are victims.
Obama never raised Romney's remarks during the debate, to the dismay of many Democrats.
The president's campaign did on Tuesday release its first ad since the debate incorporating Romney's comments on the 47 percent. The 30-second spot focused on seniors, arguing that some of the "victims" Romney referred to were seniors receiving Medicare.
Despite the Democratic worries, officials at Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters say their approach to the final weeks of the campaign has always hinged on a tight race.
"We never anticipated winning battleground states by 10 points and can't imagine winning a ton of them by 5 points," said Ben LaBolt, Obama's campaign spokesman. "Our task is to lay out the economic choice every day for undecideds and to turn out our supporters."
For some Democrats, who sensed some in the party getting overconfident before the debate, a case of the nerves may not be such a bad thing.
"I'd rather get a jolt four weeks out than a week out when there's still time to do something about this," said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist.