Romney did not deliver last night the calibre performance he displayed during the first debate. How can he up his game for debate three?
1) Dial it back. Aggressive is good. But don' t argue with the moderators and don't intrude into the president's physical space. People are quick to apply the label "entitled" to you. Don't offer them occasion.
2) Worry about the votes you need, not the votes you have. It's way late to be chasing the votes of people who think that Fast & Furious is the biggest scandal since Watergate. (Or bigger!) Remember: middle class, middle class, jobs, jobs, women, women - and did I say middle class?
3) Empathy, empathy, empathy. That answer you gave last time about hiring women in Massachusetts? It was … OK. But what it showed much more than anything else that you think like an employer. Always and ever. Thinking like an employer is fine to the extent it enables you to talk well about how hiring decisions are made. Remember though, voters are also watching with the question in mind: do you have any idea what it feels like to walk in my moccasins? Don't allow them to finish the broadcast thinking, "No, he has no idea."
4) Careful with the facts. The president sleepwalked through the first debate, and perhaps that caused you to get a little overconfident in the second. You lost both exchanges over factual matters - oil production and whether the president described Libya as terrorism - because you hadn't properly war-gamed the president's most likely answer and weren't prepared to reply. EG: "Mr. President, you say 'Use them or lose them' about oil leases on public lands. But when you revoke those leases, it's not just the users who lose. We all lose the energy we need." President Obama brought his A game to this second debate, and you will have to step up yours in Debate 3.
5) The 20% tax cut is not the issue to lose the election over. You seem convinced that the biggest worry people have about your tax plan is that you won't execute it - and so you double down when confronted with evidence that the math doesn't work. Wrong. The biggest worry people have about your plan is that you will execute it, and that the benefits will flow to a privileged few, while the bill is sent to them. They have good reason for that fear. Your commitment to hold constant the share of income tax paid by the top 5% (which starts at about $154,000 AGI) while cutting tax rates at the top is a formula for a big downward shift in the tax burden within the top 5%. Meanwhile, the 80% of American workers who pay more in payroll tax than income tax will see their tax burdens rise when the payroll tax holiday expires at the end of 2012. Better to say: "I'm committed to holding taxes down. We're going to deliver tax relief - aiming at 20%. But we won't expand the deficit and we won't deliver a big windfall to the top taxpayers at the expense of everyone else."