Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The last campaign got the glory. This one is the grind.
For all the many ways that President Barack Obama's bid for a second term is different from his first, the one that stands out now is the feel at the finish.
The crowds are behind him, but this is not the 2008 "Fired Up, Ready To Go!"
Obama's admonition to supporters might as well be turned around — be ready to go, or I may get fired.
"There are times where you just have to grind it out, because it's hard," Obama told wealthy donors at a softly lit dinner in Los Angeles, speaking almost quietly even with a microphone in his hand. "It's hard work bringing about change."
On Obama's trail, the current narrative is about his strangely listless appearance in last week's debate. Yes, it left a major impression on the race, and given the enormous TV audience that saw it, Obama chose a bad day to have a bad day.
Yet Obama has also turned in upbeat appearances since then, revving up one late-night concert-hall crowd in San Francisco to the point of screams. He has found peace in the company of longtime friends traveling with him on Air Force One, energy from teenagers just waiting to shake his hand and glee in improvising ways to mock Republican rival Mitt Romney for targeting Big Bird.
There is no singular feel to Obama events as he fights for his job.
Despite his trademark steadiness, Obama tends to turn in campaign performances that mirror the crowd and the setting. He soaks up enthusiasm and shares it back when the audience is rocking, yet he can seem flat if his listeners are. He drew 15,000 students at Ohio State University on Tuesday but appeared in a hurry to finish.
The more representative feel of life around Obama is the determined, difficult lift of everything he wants to do.
It was telling that his convention speech was remarkably short on inspiration, emphasizing instead that he offered voters a hard path, but one that would lead the country to a better place.
His message in rallies and fundraisers is no different.
"I always said that change takes time," he said. "We always said that it would take more than one term. ... And by the way, no, it doesn't just take me. That's not the deal. The deal is it takes all of us."
At times Obama almost sounds like voters inked a contract with him, and they need to renew it. Not exactly the stuff of tingles for Obama supporters who show up looking for that.
But it does reflect a campaign that recognizes this is no 2008, when Obama was the fresh voice, and helped by the anti-incumbency mood of voters who saw Republican Sen. John McCain as a version of President George W. Bush.
It was this time back then, during October's chill, when Obama's campaign took on the anticipatory feel of victory. Obama recalls it as a period when "things just kind of converged" in his favor.
Yet even on that feel-good front, Obama offers tough lessons for voters.
"Back in 2008, everybody always remembers the victory. Things always look good in retrospect," he said. "But in the middle of it, we made all kinds of mistakes. We goofed up. I goofed up. But the American people carried us forward."
Such is the period Obama is in now.
It's been one of the hardest of the campaign. His aides are still dealing with questions about the last debate and eager to get to the next one, but insistent that Obama never loses perspective.
He spoke about it often during a reflective campaign swing that took him from the donor-rich events of California on Sunday and Monday to the student rally in Ohio.
When a classmate from his Hawaii school days, Pam Hamamoto, welcomed him to a fundraiser in San Francisco, Obama turned to her and said: "That was the sweetest introduction I've had since I've been president."
It didn't take, long, though for him to get down to business again.
Sure, some hope. But mostly hard work.
"I very much intend to win this election," he said, "but we're only going to do it if everybody is almost obsessive."
Follow Ben Feller at www.twitter.com/BenFellerDC
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