Mitt Romney’s Game Change Moment in the Denver Presidential Debate

Michael Tomasky on how Romney can use the debates to turn things around—and how Obama can stop him.

So here we go. Mitt Romney’s game-change moment. Banking on low expectations, on the universal expectation that Barack Obama is going to throttle or at least out-score him, and on those now-famous prepared zingers, Romney will use the first debate to turn everything around, right? Well, he might. But debates are without doubt the most overrated events on our political calendar. In fact, we’ve had nine presidential elections since 1976, and according to Gallup, how many times has the guy who led before the first debate not also led after the last one? Just twice. History has not been especially kind to trailers who thought they were going to use the debates to turn races upside down.

Let’s look at what each candidate needs to do, and let’s start with the incumbent, since his position here is less scrutinized. Actually, Obama is in a tough position, as the expected winner always is. If he doesn’t clearly dominate Romney, and I mean clearly, the media will give it to Romney on points. The media’s chief bias, conservative paranoia aside, is for a close race that will ensure their stories get lots of hits, so Obama will have to win easily and self-evidently for that not to be the case.

The first thing Obama needs to do is the first thing all Democrats need to do—not look elitist. Don’t sigh like poor Al Gore. Be loose. Talk, I’d tell him, like you’re at a bar. Except for those who detest you, people seem to like the guy you are, so just be that guy first and foremost, and remember that you’re talking to America, not this Romney fellow.

I don’t want to contribute to these stupid expectation games, but the fact is that Romney is a good debater. When he needed to put Rick Perry and Rick Santorum away during the primaries, by God he did it, and with aplomb. Obama has to be ready for those moments, because Romney will surely attempt them.

This brings us back to the zingers. It is certainly true that one measure, arguably an important measure, of who won a debate is who gets the bulk of the sound-bite replays on cable news for the next three days. Remember, there’s an instant winner of debates, but in recent years the media has reserved the right to change its collective mind after two or three days, and two or three days of Romney looking debonair on cable TV could change people’s opinions. So one can see the zinger rationale. Alas, though, that rationale is kind of defeated if your campaign leaks it to The New York Times before the debate. Then the zingers aren’t a surprise. Still, Obama ought to come prepared with a few of his own.

As to Romney: It’s a mark of the fundamental vapidity of his campaign that his people think he can win with mere zingers. That isn’t Romney’s problem. His problem is that people don’t see any authenticity to the man, and basically (and perhaps, ergo) don’t like the person they see. They should be using this debate as a way to address those two deficits. Zingers won’t do that. I’d also bet you dollars to doughnuts that these zingers are written to please the right-wingers watching. That is his same-old problem, thinking that if he’s winning over the right, he’s winning over America.

Will he be specific about his tax plan? That’s the only thing that I can think Romney can do that would really change this race in a meaningful way. If he said, “Yes, the math does add up, and I will eliminate these four specific loopholes to make it all add up,” then that would make it an interesting night. He’d probably be lying, it nearly goes without saying. But at least it would be the dominant story coming out of the evening, and it would put the Obama team on the defensive because no one expects it. That, I think, is the way Romney can really change the dynamic here. With steak, not sizzle.

I don’t want to get into predictions, but here are three scenarios. First and most likely: It will be very tense at first, of course. But after an hour or so, it will devolve into the usual irresolute back and forth and fog of numbers, and people in markets where there are pennant races will start flipping over to the baseball games. (Wednesday, by the way, is the regular season’s final night of baseball, with a lot on the line, although interestingly, not so much in swing states.) Obama will probably win, according to those instant dial-thingies they use on CNN, but he’ll win unspectacularly. Romney will try to say he has the big mo, but polls will reflect that it made almost no difference.

Second and more fun, but less likely: Romney really screws up in some way. He interrupts the president in that Master-of-the-Universe, bordering-on-rude way he has, or he blurts out something weird, like that $10,000 bet business. Alternatively, he gets caught in a lie and does that nervous laugh thing, which America is onto by now.

And third, and I think least likely, Obama does something really dumb. He’s not a spectacular debater, but remember, he did win all three against John McCain. You remember the massive impact those had, don’t you? Obama led going into the debates, and he led coming out of them. Such drama!