Time for Discipline

How Mitt Romney Can Win the First Debate With Obama

Romney could win the first debate if he’s disciplined enough to confine himself to a tightly circumscribed message, says Robert Shrum.

Julie Jacobson / AP Photo

By the vast preponderance of harsh judgment, even from conservative poobahs like William Kristol and Peggy Noonan, Mitt Romney has a bad campaign. Who in the world with any sense would have drafted that hasty, ill-informed charge that President Obama sympathized with terrorists during the assault on American diplomats in Egypt and Libya? But it’s not just the campaign that’s bad; it’s the bad candidate who approved that statement, wrote his own junior league acceptance speech, and on the tape at a now notorious fundraiser seemed so uncharacteristically comfortable—with his own kind—while condescendingly writing off half the country as victims unworthy of his concern.

The damage is cumulative—from his offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000; to his quiescent summer when he let the Obama forces indelibly define him; to his choice of the Medicare-smashing Paul Ryan, which by now has collapsed a 20-point Romney lead among seniors down to a mere 4 points. His spin-challenged handlers have been clinging like it was an electoral life raft to the Gallup tracking poll, an outlier at odds with most other national surveys and entirely inconsistent with most numbers from the battleground states. Then suddenly, Gallup delivered news that signals unhappy days to come for Romney. First, the president’s approval rating shifted from +1 to +8—and topped the crucial 50 percent mark. And in the battlegrounds, Gallup found that Democratic enthusiasm about voting has soared 20 points—to 73 percent—11 points ahead of Republicans.

Republicans have reason to be unenthused—and to wonder whether Romney can recover. His “strategists” have concocted a series of stopgap tactics. “More Mitt,” as Politico reported at least has the virtue of alliterative succinctness. You get it right away. And that’s the problem: who thinks that seeing more of a stiff, out-of-touch candidate will do any more good than his widely seen appearance at the Republican Convention?

This week’s confection is a three-day bus tour across Ohio, with Romney propped up by the supposedly more natural and base-beloved Ryan. For months, virtually every survey has shown Romney upside down in a state carried by every successful Republican nominee in history, but repelled by his opposition to the auto bailout and his glaring disconnect with ordinary Americans. But what will the two men say at their bus stops? They may promise more “specifics; but the elements of their economic plan—whether tax cuts for the wealthy or vouchers to replace Medicare—are anathema to the majority of voters. On those issues, at best they’re on the defensive. So you can bet that they will resort to recycling John McCain’s unavailing cry four years ago, “drill, baby, drill.” But this is peripheral—not to mention misleading—and hardly likely to move the center of gravity in 2012.

When the bus stops rolling, Romney will retreat to the last prep sessions for the first debate with Obama—which may be his last hope. His campaign is buying time until the debate; flummoxed Republicans are anticipating it—and dreading it. Can Mitt the Mouth, so often lacerated by his own tongue, talk his way back into contention?

I’ve written, and I believe, that there’s no chance Romney will morph into JFK. But history suggests that in the first debate, against an incumbent president, a challenger tends to win. That’s been true five out of six times since 1984—and not merely because it’s true that a challenger becomes more presidential by standing face to face, on equal footing, with a president. Reagan beat Carter memorably and decisively in 1980; in 1992, Clinton dominated the first Bush—and Ross Perot; in 2004, Kerry erased a deficit and routed Bush II in a first debate that focused on the incumbent’s presumed area of strength—national security. The one exception, the sixth man out, was Bob Dole, who spoke in nearly impenetrable legislative language during his encounters with President Clinton.

The general assumption is that Romney, while speaking corporate power point rather than congressional palaver, will probably be another Dole. But low expectations could actually help him. An adequate performance could be perceived as surprisingly strong. So the Obama ranks are attempting to raise expectations for their opponent. As senior adviser Robert Gibbs said on Fox News Sunday: “Mitt Romney ... has an advantage because he’s been through 20 of these debates in the primaries ... He even bragged that ... he was declared a winner in 16 of [them]”—albeit against the weakest field in either party in modern history. It seems inexplicable that one of Mitt’s own aides chimed in: “We’re going to be ready ... and we’re going to win.”

Inexplicable but essential: Romney has to give his wavering ranks, especially his fundraisers, reason to hold on to Oct. 3. So he intentionally has to raise the bar as he thoughtlessly did before his debate against Ted Kennedy in 1994—which magnified the dimensions of his defeat then. This time, the ploy isn’t thoughtless, but a measure of desperation. For the Republican nominee and his advisers, it’s plainly a price that must be paid.

Yet whoever wins the games of expectations, Romney could exceed them—and even prevail in the first encounter with Obama—if and only if he’s disciplined enough to consent and confine himself to a tightly circumscribed message box. He’s spent hours and days with his coaches and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who’s playing the president. The GOP primary debates ought to teach a lesson that informs the practice sessions. Mitt can land a tough punch, as he did against Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Social Security—although, ironically, they are both on record in favor of privatization. But the campaign to date also proves that the candidate can’t be trusted on his own. With him, spontaneity invites calamity. So assuming the once all-powerful, seldom gainsaid CEO could bring himself to agree, his prep surely concentrates on anticipating the questions, memorizing the answers, and reiterating the warning against saying something that just pops into his head.

The resulting Romney could be safe, if not stellar. And in the penultimate days before the debate, he could—and I believe he will—rehearse and rehearse to try to plane away his animatronic edge.

His best chance for victory comes, as in so many past debates, from getting off big lines that throw an opponent off balance—or that outlast the hour and a half back-and-forth and leave a vivid imprint on the public mind. In that sense, political debate prep is on both sides inevitably a chess match played in shadows. The task—the prize—is to predict what the other candidate will say. And under pressure, a candidate will repeat something that’s ingrained in his or her stump rhetoric. This opens the way to the big line—which is always more powerful as a comeback.

Thus the Reagan campaign in 1980 knew to a near certainty that Carter would assail the Gipper for his early opposition to Medicare. The charge was true but irrelevant as Reagan famously lowered the boom: “There you go again.”

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In 1988 the first Bush’s running mate, Sen. Dan Quayle, was given to comparing himself with JFK. His debate coaches warned him against it; but the fourth time he was asked about his experience, he defaulted to form. It was just the moment that Democratic vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen was waiting for. “I served with Jack Kennedy,” he shot back, looking straight at Quayle. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” There was nothing left to say.

Or recall that first Kerry-Bush debate; in the Kerry prep, we were convinced that at some point Bush would justify the Iraq War by invoking 9/11. Kerry mounted the stage with a mantra in his head: he says Saddam, you say Osama. Sure enough it happened, and Kerry retorted: “Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us.” Bush sputtered that yes, that was true. As I noted, Kerry went into the national security debate regarded as Bush’s balliwick, behind in the polls, although the margin is disputable. But what is indisputable is that Newsweek showed a post-debate 8-point swing to Kerry, who was suddenly in the lead.

Romney has had his own painful experience with the big line—in that 1994 Senate debate. His campaign had leaked a story that Kennedy had obtained a sweetheart deal to secure a prime piece of commercial property for a family-owned Furniture Mart in southwest Washington. Romney, under fire for his practices at Bain, took to harping on the charge. Actually Kennedy knew nothing about the arrangement—and it was completely aboveboard. But we decided the details weren’t important; to voters the accusation was simply incredible. Instead, Kennedy leveled his opponent: “Mr. Romney, the Kennedys are not in public service to make money. We have paid too high a price.” The audience roared its approval.

Right now, Romney is looking for his own big line. And it won’t be enough to borrow from Reagan: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Obama’s ready for that one—and he too is thinking about potential moments and gaming out how Romney would respond.

Finally, the preps focus on style. Remember that the camera is always on you—so that you don’t pull a Bush I and look at your watch, a picture that conveyed he just wanted out of there. Don’t sigh—which cost Al Gore victory in a debate he absolutely dominated on substance. And in Romney’s case, one piece of advice is more than probable—don’t smirk.

Obama himself may have some catching up to do. He has a full-time day job; he may not have as much time for prep. His campaign is undeniably right that he hasn’t debated in four years. It’s worrying that he looked tired at an Univision event, where he and Romney appeared on successive nights. And Kerry, who’s Romney in the president’s practices, has to goad him—and goad him hard—so that in the real debate his real opponent’s provocations don’t elicit visible irritation.

There’s an argument from political scientists that the debates don’t really count—that they only account for a “nudge”—a point or two. But that can make all the difference. Ask the Richard Nixon of 1960—or George W. Bush and Al Gore. And if 60,000 votes had switched in Ohio, the first debate would have been key to a Kerry victory in 2004.

For Romney, it’s now debate like a champ or see his candidacy wither and die. He does have advantages going in. His biggest disadvantage is himself.