It’s not as though President Obama is such a hot debater. The orator capable of lighting up an entire football stadium has infamously flubbed a few of his face-to-face showdowns – a record not lost on Republican Mitt Romney as he prepares for a debate next week that might be his last shot at reenergizing his campaign.
Hillary Rodham Clinton ran circles around Obama during the early debates of the long 2008 Democratic presidential primary season. After she joked about a report showing Obama was more likable than she was during a New Hampshire debate, she used the opportunity to compliment Obama as "very likable." Barely looking up from his notes, Obama coolly replied, “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” a comment later panned by pundits as condescending.
Standing at a lectern, the president can sound painfully professorial and elliptical in making his case impromptu. Veteran Republican political operative Eddie Mahe scoffs that Obama “can't function without a teleprompter.”
Next Wednesday’s nationally televised presidential debate in Colorado – the first of three that will be held before the Nov. 6 election – will be far from a cakewalk for Obama. He still must persuade voters to entrust him with a second term, despite 43 consecutive months of unemployment above 8 percent, four consecutive years of trillion-dollar deficits, widespread criticism of his health care reform and economic stimulus programs, a 13.2 percent decline in durable goods orders last month, and nagging doubts about his stewardship of foreign policy in the wake of the recent anti-American protests and violence throughout the Middle East.
Those challenges pale by comparison with the task awaiting Romney at the debate that will be moderated by Jim Lehrer, host of NewsHour on PBS. The GOP nominee insists he’s well poised to pull off an upset victory in November. Yet the former Massachusetts governor and private equity investor literally is staring into a political abyss with a new Quinnipiac University poll showing his campaign sputtering to a loss in battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
If Romney fails to exploit the opportunity presented by this debate, the election could well be over by the end of next week – when 30 states including all-important Ohio will have begun some form of early voting that could pretty much lock in Obama’s current lead. The University of Denver debate likely represents Romney’s last chance to salvage his flagging campaign.
BLASTS BETWEEN CANDIDATES
Romney is still reeling from the controversy over his surreptitiously videotaped remarks to donors in May that 47 percent of the American people paid no income taxes, were dependent on government, viewed themselves as “victims” and would never vote for him. Since then, Obama has repeatedly blasted Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who champions top-down economic and tax policy and who has written off nearly half of the country.
“I don't believe we can get very far with leaders who write off half the nation as a bunch of victims who never take responsibility for their own lives,” Obama told Ohio audiences this week.
But Romney has felt his back pressed against the wall in past presidential debates and come out punching hard – as he did last January, by upending a surging former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Gingrich was poised to overtake Romney as the frontrunner after a strong victory in South Carolina. But Romney demonstrated that with proper preparation and coaching (he was helped by a former debate prep coach for John McCain and Sarah Palin), he could overcome his inherent starchiness and get off some game-changing zingers. His sparring partner ahead of meeting with Obama is Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who previously stood in as Obama for McCain in 2008. Meanwhile, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is channeling Romney in debate dress rehearsals with Obama.
Romney lunged with knife-sharp digs at Gingrich during the Jacksonville, Fla. primary debate on Jan. 25. He savaged the laundry list of projects, including a colony on the moon that Gingrich had proposed in the first few early nominating states.
“In South Carolina, it was a new interstate highway, and dredging the port in Charleston,” Romney said. “In New Hampshire, it was burying a power line coming in from Canada and building a new VHA hospital in New Hampshire so that people don’t have to go to Boston. This idea of going state to state and
promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy -- that’s what got us into the trouble we’re in now.
“A big idea,” Romney concluded, is not always “a good idea.”
After Florida, Romney had a vast campaign war chest to spend on attack ads and plenty of time to wrap up the nomination. He didn’t round up all 1,144 delegates he needed to claim the GOP nomination until he won the Texas primary at the end of May. With Romney and Obama nearly evenly matched in their campaign fundraising and media spending prowess from here on out, the general election calendar has become Romney’s enemy, with only 40 days to go before Election Day.