Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was battle-tested during the GOP primary, which enabled him to win decisively the first debate with President Barack Obama.
But not having a primary challenge gave Obama the advantage of time to put in place a campaign apparatus that early on defined Romney as someone who was out of touch with the lives of everyday Americans.
Those were some of the insights shared Thursday by campaign operatives, analysts and journalists at the 2012 Post-Election Conference held at the Dole Institute of Politics.
The overflow crowd of more than 100 heard about what was going on behind the scenes in the campaigns when Obama turned in a dismal debate performance, Clint Eastwood talked to a chair at the Republican National Convention and Romney's "47 percent" comment exploded. The conference concludes Friday.
The theme of Romney's campaign was "Obama wasn't working," said Katie Gage, deputy campaign director for Romney.
Gage said the campaign wanted the election to be a referendum on Obama and that Romney "was a guy who turned things around."
But as Romney took hits through the GOP primary, Obama's team built its ground game in battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, said Marlon Marshall, deputy national field director for Obama.
"Romney was damaged coming out of the primary," said James Hohmann, national political reporter for POLITICO.
At the GOP convention, Eastwood made headlines when during his national televised appearance, he addressed an empty chair as if he were talking to an invisible Obama. Many thought the bit was strange and disrespectful.
Gage said the episode caught the Romney campaign by surprise. But she criticized the media for focusing on it for days.
"That was borderline ridiculous," she said.
Later in the campaign, a video emerged of Romney's remarks criticizing 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes.
"Without a doubt that stopped us dead in our tracks," Gage said.
Jeremy Bird, national field director for Obama, said the Obama campaign was careful to allow the story to play out without pushing it.
"We wanted it to have its own oxygen," he said.
By the time of the first debate Oct. 3 in Denver, Gage knew Romney would do well because he had participated in numerous debates during the primary and took time off from the campaign to get ready.
"He is the most prepared person that I have ever seen in politics. When it was crunch time, he brought it," she said.
Bird said Obama "had a bad night." He said when Romney pivoted away from the tax plan he had been pushing for months, it threw Obama off.
Marshall said Obama's poor debate performance made the campaign work harder.
"It killed any sense of complacency," he said.
Others participating in the conference were Rich Beeson, national political director for Romney; Brent Colburn, national communications director for Obama; Nancy Dwight, 2012 Fall Dole Fellow and Republican strategist; Joseph Lenski, executive vice president and co-founder of Edison Market Research; Erin McPike, national field reporter for RealClearPolitics; Jerry Seib, Washington Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal; and Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent for The New York Times. Bill Lacy, director of the Dole Institute, moderated the discussion.