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.
And so – short of another unforeseen event like the recent catastrophic anti-American flare-up in the Middle East, or a dramatic surge in the unemployment rate – just about everything is riding on Romney’s performances in the three presidential debates.
“Romney is on the ropes and he certainly has to hope that the president slips up during the first debate,” said John Zogby, a veteran Republican pollster. “For his own part, he has to document a commanding knowledge of the economy and the people it serves. He will have to sprinkle all of his policy arguments with examples of real people, with real names and stories he has met along the way.”
Zogby also told The Fiscal Times, “He has to show that beyond the macro level, he can relate to individuals, that he can bleed with them and that he will represent a government that does good things for people.”
Writing this month in GQ, author Robert Draper notes that “all sorts of things can happen – most of them bad – when two of the world's most insulated creatures are suddenly thrust into an oppressive atmosphere consisting of a desolate stage, grim-faced inquisitors, a stone-silent live audience, and an invisible American electorate monitoring every blink and stammer.”
ECONOMY IS FOCUS
The first debate will be almost exclusively on the economy – which should be an easy anvil for Romney to hammer the president for unmet promises to halve the deficit, put Americans back to work and create a more harmonious atmosphere in Washington. He will have to deftly parry his own stumbles, including his “47 percent” comments, proposals for a 20-percent-across-the-board tax cut and deficit reduction pledges that don’t add up, and his criticism of the administration’s successful bailout of auto giants General Motors and Chrysler.
“It is too late to reengineer Mitt Romney; he is what he is, and voters will take him or leave him in terms of likability,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “But what he has in his arsenal is a list of economic disappointments and broken promises from Obama. His only real chance to break through in the debates is to be relentless in cataloging Obama's weaknesses and prosecuting his case. Negativity won’t make him more likable but at this point, rejection of the incumbent by an unhappy electorate is the only conceivable way that he wins, barring divine intervention or an October surprise that somehow benefits the challenger.”
In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Republican strategist Karl Rove urged Romney to challenge aggressively the president’s veracity, without outright calling him a liar, in asserting, for example, that Romney’s tax cut plan would actually raise taxes on middle class families by as much as $2,000.
“During these widely watched events, Mr. Romney must call out the president,” wrote Rove, who was the top political guru for former President George W. Bush. “That is not so easy: Mr. Romney can’t call Mr. Obama a liar; that’s too harsh a word that would backfire. Mr. Romney must instead set the record straight in a presidential tone – firm, respectful, but not deferential. And a dash of humor is worth its weight in gold.”
“While Mr. Romney must point out the president’s misrepresentations, he can’t take on the role of fact-checker-in-chief,” according to Rove. “He should deal comprehensively with several of Mr. Obama’s untruths and, having done so, dismiss the rest as more of the same.”
TIPS FROM GINGRICH Plenty of other free debate coaching has begun to pour in for Romney. Even Gingrich, his chief nemesis during the primaries, has offered five debating tips for the encounter with Obama, which are laced with common sense:
- Relax and be prepared – “More important than what Romney knows is how he feels. Is he confident? Is he relaxed? Is he in command of himself?”
- Be assertive and be on offense against both Obama and the media – “It is inevitable the media will ask Romney about 'the 47 percent.' Instead of answering it, Romney should pivot and say, 'Let me tell you about the 100 percent. Obama has failed.’”
- Be honest – “There are things Romney has done wrong. Admit it. People can smell dishonesty and disingenuous efforts to sell or hide."
- Use humor – “Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy both had this wonderful knack of using humor to make points. President Obama is a detached, often stiff person who overestimates his competence.”
- Finally, enjoy the evening – “Romney should relax and bring to bear a lifetime of experience at decency, honesty, determination, applied intelligence and hard work. He will do just fine.”