In his first debate with Mitt Romney, President Obama arguably blew a modest lead in the polls, breathed new life into the moribund Republican campaign, and left his closest supporters frustrated if not demoralized. Not a bad night’s work! Now two weeks later, Obama has a chance in their rematch Tuesday night to patch up the mess he made of things in Denver — or to compound his problems even further.
When TPM looked at then-struggling Romney’s debate checklist before the Denver debate, it was clear he had a daunting task. Examples including defending his left flank (he ran to the center on taxes and health care, leaning on misleading claims to do so) and pivoting from his own troubles to put Obama on the defensive. He ended up excelling on all counts.
This time it’s Obama with a laundry list of areas where he needs to improve. Here are a few keys to watch in Tuesday’s debate, which begins at 9 p.m. ET, at Hofstra University in New York:
Make ‘Moderate Mitt’ Severely Conservative
The Obama campaign made a choice after Romney won his nomination to portray him as a callous ultraconservative businessman rather than the untrustworthy ideological weathervane his own party’s rivals tried to portray him as. For a while it was going great as Romney’s negatives soared and the base threatened to revolt every time he even tiptoed to the center. But at the debate, he suddenly presented himself as a moderate problem solver who would insure everyone and not cut the rich’s taxes a dime — and it worked.
This time, Obama’s big task is to force Romney back into the “severely conservative” corner he occupied throughout the last two years.
“At some point he needs to say there’s a profound difference between the two of us,” Tom Downey, who helped prep Al Gore for his presidential debates, told TPM. Otherwise, “Romney’s the only person defining who he is.”
That means women watching a nominee who says he has no interest in restricting abortion need to hear from Obama what Romney told pro-lifers all year about overturning Roe vs. Wade. People with chronic illnesses who hear that they won’t be denied insurance after Obamacare’s repealed need to hear — and believe — that Romney has walked back that claim every time he’s made it. And voters who hear that Romney won’t cut taxes for the rich or raise their taxes need to hear how he bragged about helping the 1 percent in the primaries while telling donors that his tax plan wouldn’t benefit 47 percent of Americans, nor would he want it to.
Play The Greatest Hits
Democratic pundits were dumbfounded after the first debate that Obama didn’t go after Romney with any of the campaign’s greatest hits, from his low tax rate to Bain’s outsourcing.
There are signs this carried over to the polls as well. An important part of Romney’s post-debate bump was a surge in enthusiasm among Republican voters and a wave of malaise among Democrats. Romney’s favorability numbers are also up dramatically, meaning Obama needs to remind voters why they were so worried about Romney in the first place.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg released a memo after the debate arguing that, based on his own focus group research, Romney’s “47 percent” moment is the most crucial weapon in Obama’s arsenal. Why? Because it fires up the key planks of the Democratic base — women, minorities, and young voters — like nothing else. if Joe Biden’s attacks in the vice presidential debate are any indicate, Obama is likely to bring Romney’s hidden camera confessional up early and often.
More than any particular substantive change, what Democrats really want from Obama is on-stage swagger. In Denver, Romney looked like he couldn’t wait to tear into the president’s answers. Obama looked listless, annoyed, and ready to leave from the first moments.
Rob Reiner, acclaimed director and longtime Democratic supporter, told TPM Monday that Obama needs a more fiery performance to overcome his meandering, professorial debut. More like the Princess Bride’s Westley — less like Vizzini.
“He has to be more forceful. He has to basically call [Romney] on his obfuscations and his out-and-out lies,” Reiner said. “He has to call him on those things. And if the base sees that he’s forceful about that stuff I think you’ll see a little bit of a shift back.”
That said, the town hall setting makes it tough for Obama ratchet up the attacks to full strength, Reiner suggested.
“It’s not the format where you can pummel the other guy, because you’re in front of people, you know?” he said.
Reiner recently produced a swing state ad for MoveOn focusing on women’s issues. He said he hoped the format would lead to more questions on the topic, which he said strongly favors Obama and may give him a good chance to connect with voters.
Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed to this post.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.