President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney face off at the first presidential debate Wednesday — an important moment for both candidates, but especially critical for Romney.
Presidential debates tend to reinforce, rather than sway, voter opinions. But in some instances, they can affect the dynamics of a race, boost voter enthusiasm and provide a candidate an opening for a comeback.
That is exactly what Romney needs. After failing to gain traction from the GOP convention, he hurled himself into a turbulent month marked by campaign blunders and contradictory messages, leaving his campaign in constant “reboot” mode.
Now, as he moves into the final weeks of the campaign, his path to the White House is narrowing as he faces anemic poll numbers in key swing states, such as Florida and Ohio — a state no Republican has ever lost and won the presidency.
Despite Obama’s mediocre job-approval numbers and his vulnerability on the economy — consistently cited by voters as the most important election issue — Romney’s economic message hasn’t resonated with a majority of voters, including those in the middle class.
Recent polls show the former head of Bain Capital has lost his edge on whom voters trust to handle the economy. Add on a gender gap, high unfavorability ratings and voters’ perception that he isn’t like them — and Romney has some ground to make up.
“(The debate is) Romney’s last best chance to turn things around,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush. “He’ll have to exceed expectations by a lot. He needs to have a moment that gets people to view him differently. And he needs to articulate some ideas that people think are credible on the economy. He needs to appeal across the board.”
With early voting already underway in some states such as Iowa and Ohio, and other critical swing states kicking off voting over the next two weeks, the first presidential debate is widely viewed as both candidates’ best chance at reaching the public.
In Colorado, where early-voting ballots this year go out Oct. 15, nearly 80 percent of voters cast ballots by Election Day in 2008, said Michael McDonald, an election expert at George Mason University. McDonald predicts this year 35 percent of the presidential votes nationwide will be cast before Election Day.
The event’s hype has led Obama’s advisers to downplay expectations, noting that the president’s busy schedule has not allowed for enough debate practice. Romney’s campaign and surrogates, however, are covering all their bases, simultaneously playing up Romney’s abilities while tamping down expectations.
With estimates that more than 50 million people will watch the debate in an attempt to get answers to their questions about the economy, health care and the role of government, it is unlikely that either candidate won’t be ready for prime time. But what they do with that time is critical.
“Obama’s task is like being on a football team with a lead. Put in the defensive backs and don’t make any mistakes,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and former adviser to Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain during his 2000 presidential primary run. “Romney has to throw the ball, but it’s not time yet for a Hail Mary. He has to consistently move the ball down the field.”
As the incumbent president, Obama needs to play defense without looking defensive, said Schnur. And Obama should remind people why they like him, note the promises he kept and attempt to gingerly place the blame at the feet of the U.S. Congress for those campaign vows he broke, said Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh.
While he needs to play it a bit safe — he’s only narrowly ahead of Romney in national polls — he also needs to go on the attack, painting Romney’s positions as nearly identical to those of President George W. Bush, which “contributed to the mess today,” she said. And expect to hear more than one reference to Romney’s comments suggesting that 47 percent of Americans were dependent on government and viewed themselves as victims.
“Whenever he can, the president will say, ‘I represent all of America,’ forcing Gov. Romney back on his heels,” she said.
Obama, however, also needs to remain engaged, give short answers and avoid lecturing as though he were teaching a constitutional law class.
“The president is not a terrific debater. The format of short answers does not lend itself well to his skills,” said David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York, who has written a book on presidential debates. “He has a tendency to appear supercilious, and use a tone that is condescending — especially when he starts a sentence with ‘Um, look.’ The president needs to avoid looking smug, out of touch and arrogant.”
During a 2008 Democratic primary debate against opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama somewhat callously referred to her as “likable enough.” And appearing tired and irritated during a recent “60 Minutes” interview, the president referred to the instability in the Middle East as “bumps in the road.”
Romney’s hurdle is that he needs to outperform the president and give voters a reason to both reject Obama and embrace him, strategists and political observers say. That means Romney must accomplish a number of things in 90 minutes: Be relatable and likable; offer specific policy details he has not disclosed in the past; aggressively, but respectfully, hit the president on his record; and try to squeeze in a memorable line or funny zinger.
While there are very few undecided voters left, there are always those who are weakly committed — crucial in a tight race such as this, said Mitchell McKinney, a political communications specialist at the University of Missouri.
“We call them persuadables. They still aren’t completely comfortable with their choice,” he said. “It’s a chance for Romney to get his message across and re-reintroduce himself.”
That message should avoid “Republican ideological code words” on the economy such as “free market, self-reliance and downsize government” because they often turn off moderate voters, said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential politics expert at the University of Texas. And Romney should add some meat to his economic plan, which includes cutting taxes for the wealthy and the middle class; slashing regulations that negatively impact businesses; expanding trade; balancing the budget; and promoting domestic energy independence.
“He certainly doesn’t need to spew off 57 specific proposals, but he needs to paint a compelling vision of a better future and give voters confidence that his plan is better than Barack Obama’s,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Romney has some advantages. He has been preparing for the debates since June, and challengers tend to gain immediate stature by appearing on stage next to the incumbent. And while he hasn’t participated in a one-on-one debate, he holds the record for debate attendance among general-election candidates since he ran in both 2008 and 2012, McKinney said. During his match-ups against Newt Gingrich, Romney proved he could be aggressive, even accusing the former House Speaker of “influence peddling.”
“He’s a very good technical debater. He doesn’t make substantial errors,” said Brett O’Donnell, GOP communications strategist and debate adviser to Romney during the primary. “His weakness is that when he gets defensive, he tends to looks bad.”
During a GOP primary debate, Romney went off-script and offered a $10,000 wager to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. That reinforced some opinions that Romney was out of touch.
While there is much at stake, and viewers can expect a good video bite to emerge in the aftermath and perhaps information to help them make an educated decision on who to vote for, most political observers agree that this debate will not miraculously change the race overnight.
“Super Bowl moments don’t happen in debates,” Schnur said. “If you are looking for a single, magical, transformative moment, you might be let down.”