President Barack Obama must come out swinging in next week’s critical debate against Mitt Romney if he intends to win the race for the White House in four short weeks.

No more professorial lectures. No more deep-in-the-weeds statistics. No more re-visiting the problems of four years ago.

No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Obama must deliver the knock-out punch. He has no choice.

“I think it’s fair to say I was just too polite, because, you know, it’s hard to sometimes just keep on saying and what you’re saying isn’t true. It gets repetitive,” Obama acknowledged on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” Wednesday.

Too polite?

The president knows better. Political debates are blood sports and Obama, one of the nation’s most skilled orators, is fully aware that you continue to jab and counter-punch right up until the moderator says “good night.”

It’s basic Debating 101. So what happened?

“You know, the good news is, is that’s just the first one,” Obama told TJMS listeners. “Governor Romney put forward a whole bunch of stuff that either involved him running away from positions that he had taken, or doubling down on things like Medicare vouchers that are going to hurt him long term.”

The president makes a good point. I only wish he had made that compelling argument on stage in Denver last week when he was standing face-to-face with Romney.

Where was the president’s passion last week? Where was the fire in his belly? Where was Obama’s quick wit and blistering retorts?

Here’s the truth: The president looked tired; he appeared burned out and he was clearly disengaged. Obama rarely looked Romney square in the eyes, choosing instead to look down at the lectern for much of the debate and scribble notes.

And to the dismay of millions of loyal Democrats, Obama never raised the issue of Romney’s secret video where he told wealthy donors that “47 percent” of Obama’s supporters view themselves as “victims” who “do not take personal responsibility for their lives.”

Romney’s much-discussed national embarrassment – a gaffe parodied by Saturday Night Live  — would have been a body blow to Romney, but Obama, for reasons the campaign refuses to clearly explain, decided not to raise the issue during the debate.

This was a huge mistake. And I can’t underscore the negative impact this blunder had on the president’s poll numbers.

In the days leading up to last week’s debate, Obama had Romney on the ropes. The president was leading in all national polls and had the momentum heading into Denver. Today, according to most polls, the race is now deadlocked. Obama’s weak performance last week allowed Romney to climb back into the race and revive his struggling campaign.

Of the seven national surveys of likely voters that were released on Tuesday, three showed a dead-even race, while four gave Romney a slight edge of one to two percentage points.

“The weight of the evidence suggests that this was a very good period for Gov. Romney,” Scott Keeter, the director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, told POLITICO. “When you think about what happened in that debate, everything seemed aligned to give him the most push that you could possibly get out of such an event.”

While many Democrats are getting nervous, Obama still has several paths to victory: If he wins Ohio, Florida and Virginia, pollsters say, he’ll stay in the White House for another four years.

“And there is no excuse for folks not turning out,” the president told Tom Joyner and Sybil Wilkes.  “We’ve got too much work that we’ve already done and too much work that we’ve got to do, to sit back and be complacent.”

Let’s hope Obama isn’t too complacent during Tuesday’s debate. The president needs to fire-up his base and give African-Americans a reason to pack the polls on Nov. 6.

Next Tuesday, Obama will have another opportunity to challenge Romney on a national stage, this time from Hempstead, New York, in a town-hall-style debate focusing on national and foreign policy where the moderator and undecided voters will ask questions of the two candidates.

This format should play well to the president’s strengths and give Obama a second chance to aggressively highlight Romney’s leadership flaws and expose Romney’s lies.

And here’s a critical question: Will Obama bring his A-Game to next week’s debate? Will Obama call Romney out for his secret video? Or will Americans see the lackluster President Obama from last week who appeared to throw up the white flag of defeat minutes after the debate started.

“I think it’s fair to say that we will see a little more activity at the next one,” the president promised Joyner, referring to next Tuesday’s debate.

I certainly hope so. After the president hit the mat last week, there’s nowhere to go but up.

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