Mitt Romney’s aides aren’t even bothering with the usual game of lowering expectations for their candidate ahead of his Oct. 3 debate in Denver. With President Obama solidifying leads in almost every battleground state, Romney needs a dominant performance to change the dynamic, and everyone knows it.
Assuming Obama maintains his polling edge, his debate checklist is clear: hold his own against Romney’s attacks and avoid any major missteps. Romney’s path is much more complex and varied. Here are a few of the boxes he needs to check off in a successful matchup.
• Take A Punch From The Left
Mitt Romney performed well in high-stakes primary debates, but the number one challenge each time was to show skeptical Republicans that he was a true conservative, mostly by outflanking his opponents on issues like immigration and the environment.
This time, however, the president’s attacks will be coming from the left, where Romney often seems less comfortable selling his positions — at times even seeming to invent new ones.
The biggest problem area is health care, where the GOP base is still quick to attack him for any feint to the left. After being asked on Meet The Press recently how he would help Americans with chronic illness find insurance after he repeals the Affordable Care Act, as promised, Romney said he’d “make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage” and cited his own Massachusetts law as evidence. But Romney abandoned that law years ago as a national model and his campaign quickly clarified after the interview that he hadn’t changed his stance on guaranteed issue insurance. In a more recent interview, Romney moved in the opposite direction on the question, telling Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” that patients without coverage could simply go to the emergency room.
“He has to fence who he’s been, which is more difficult,” former Democratic Rep. Tom Downey, who helped prep Al Gore for his 1996 and 2000 debates, told TPM. “It’s much easier just to say, ‘Here’s what I believe.’”
Romney has run into similar problems when questioned about the auto bailout, where his answers have often been confusing, and about immigration, where he once accidentally endorsed a path to permanent residency through education for illegal immigrants, even though he officially opposes that idea.
• Fire Up Early Voters
Sure Romney’s in rough shape, but the only poll that matters is on Nov. 6, right? Wrong. The debates aren’t just a preview to Election Day, they actually come just as voters hit the polls in key states.
“The first debate is key because Iowa and Ohio will open early voting [in] the week before,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told TPM. “And those are two states he’s really got his eye on on the way to 270. Clearly he’s behind the eight ball in Ohio, but even if he wins Ohio, Florida and Virginia he sill needs another state — and the question is then does it become Iowa, New Hampshire or Colorado?”
As a result, the debates may offer Romney his last best chance to convince voters he’s the only candidate who can turn the economy around.
“The burden is very high on Romney and the first debate is much more important than the second and third debate because it kicks off early voting in those states,” O’Connell said. “I know that sounds difficult, but with what’s going on between the campaigns, I’m not sure that a lot of people know where either candidate sits other than the fact that one’s an incumbent and one’s the Republican challenger.”
• Regain The Upper Hand
Debates are not historically huge poll movers, which puts even more pressure on Romney to have a breakout that puts the president on the defensive.
Part of that means putting his own recent troubles behind him, especially his leaked “47 percent” remarks, with rock solid, believable answers. Part of it means finding an unexpected attack, clever zinger, or memorable moment that might throw Obama off his game.
In theory, if Obama is leading in the polls, he might take a more cautious approach in order to try to deny Romney any ad-libbed fumbles. But Downey says that’s just not the president’s style.
“I’ve played basketball against the president — he’s very competitive. My guess is Romney is as well,” he said. “It won’t really matter what your handlers say about taking it easy, both these guys want to win.”
Former Rep. Bob Walker (R-PA), who advised Newt Gingrich on his presidential campaign, suggested that the biggest danger for Obama would be to fumble a key fact and leave himself open to a media backlash the next day. Think Gerald Ford’s 1976 debate claim that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Obama stumbled on foreign policy himself recently by confusing whether Egypt was an “ally” in an interview.
“I think that if the president can define Romney as being out of the mainstream, as not a reasonable alternative, and can make a case that keeps Romney on the defensive, that will hurt Romney,” Walker said. “But on the other hand, the president has to do that while staying factual — which thus far the president has proven unable to do.”