10 Big Debate Hurdles Obama and Romney Will Face
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The Fiscal Times
October 3, 2012

Just hours from now, President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will square off for the first time in a nationally televised debate — possibly the last best chance for the former Massachusetts governor to alter the course of the campaign and try to overtake the front-running president.

Both had final cram sessions Tuesday in advance of taking the stage at the University of Denver with moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS – the first of three debates that will be held before the Nov. 6 election. But Obama enters the fray with a three to four percentage point advantage based on the averages of national polls, so he has every reason to play things safe. Still, the incumbent must persuade voters to entrust him with a second term after his tenure so far has been marked by high unemployment and a slow economic recovery.

Romney, by contrast, needs the performance of his life to turn the race around with only 35 days to go before Election Day. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows his campaign trailing in battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, while other surveys show that voters trust Obama more than Romney to oversee the economy and health care policy during the next four years.

His campaign has been limping from the self-inflicted wound of Romney calling 47 percent of Americans victims who pay no income taxes, are dependent on government, see themselves as entitled to health care, food, and housing and would never vote for him. The remarks, captured in a covert video of a closed-door dinner with wealthy donors that was recently leaked, affirms the perception of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who champions—in Obama’s words—“ top-down” economic and tax policies.

Most of the 50 million or so people who tune-in for the debate already have made up their minds, so Obama and Romney are both pumping up their base and vying for a sliver of the undecideds as early voting is already starting in many states. Here are the ten things The Fiscal Times will be looking for from the two candidates tonight.

For President Obama:

  • Can he make a convincing argument that his administration did everything possible to create jobs in the wake of the Great Recession and that he is better equipped to oversee the economy for another four years? Simply acknowledging the tough times won’t work with Romney beside him.
  • How does he defend budget and tax policies that produced four consecutive years of trillion dollar deficits and $6 trillion in accumulated national debt? Blaming George W. Bush for passing on the huge deficit doesn’t fly. Why would the next four years under Obama be any different?
  • The Democrats have a diverse and sometimes conflicting base of women, unionized workers, limousine liberals, Hispanics, African-Americans. How does Obama deliver a compelling message that keeps together a coalition prone to fracturing when in power?
  • When provoked by Romney—an opponent who he actively dislikes according to several accounts--can he keep his cool and avoid appearing patronizing? As if the debate was some kind of battle rap, Romney has been stockpiling “zingers” since August, according to reports.
  • How effective will he be in portraying Romney as an enemy of the middle class when his vice president, Joe Biden said Tuesday that "the middle class has been buried the last four years." If Obama zings Romney as the personification of the mascot from the board game “Monopoly”, the harsh criticism could undermine his likability.

For Mitt Romney:

  • After the excuse that the “47 percent” comment was merely “inelegant,” how does he convince almost half of the country that he really does care about their economic plight? His private disparaging of this group damages trust in his public statements.
  • After previously dismissing Obama as a nice guy who’s in over his head, can he pivot to sharper attacks that get under the president’s skin but don’t alienate voters? Just like a middle school student council election, running for president is in part a popularity contest and Romney’s favorability numbers can’t afford to be much lower. He managed to look presidential in GOP primary debates while delivering some slams to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, but he also came across as awkwardly condescending when proposing a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
  • Why would he do better than Obama at fixing the economy? Just leaning on his private equity resume hasn’t been enough. It’s easy to recite the failures of Obama’s policies, but much of the public still blames George W. Bush for the mess and several of Romney’s proposals sound like rehashes of what W did.
  • Can he explain how he would cut top tax rates by 20 percent, increase military spending and not cause the deficit to skyrocket? His campaign has spelled out few details, essentially telling a cynical public to just trust them. For someone running on his financial acumen, Romney needs details not pies-in-the-sky.
  • How does he explain the health insurance plan he developed as governor of Massachusetts that became the model for ObamaCare? Voters continue to dislike the president’s insurance coverage mandates, so Romney has to criticize Obama without attacking himself or coming off as defensive and confused.
Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.