Debate Dilemma

Romney and the Warmth Factor

Mitt Romney’s head must be spinning.

Everyone is deluging him with advice about Wednesday’s debate: Be aggressive but not too aggressive, be bold but reassuring, be specific but don’t get in the weeds, and have a ready supply of zingers.

Which is why I was struck by this passage in National Revview: “Romney’s advisers have a simple strategy: They want their candidate to balance his finely tuned arguments with personal warmth.”

Oh, now he has to feel people’s pain, too?

Obviously, Romney has a deficit in that department. As his strategists acknowledge, he’s a reserved businessman. But is a tightly constrained debate format the best way to show you’re a warm and fuzzy guy?

Someone like Bill Clinton could do it. In the town-hall debate in 1992, he famously waded into the audience and channeled the pain of a woman going through tough times, while, at another point, George H.W. Bush looked at his watch. But Romney is no Clinton. (Neither, for that matter, is Barack Obama.)

If Romney tries too hard and too obviously to come off as energetic, he risks looking phony. But if he’s too stiff and programmatic, he could appear out of touch. (One thing I don’t expect is for Obama to peer over and say, “You’re likable enough, Mitt.”)

The warmth question underscores how the odd nature of presidential debates. The media—and those watching at home—will judge them by the substance of the exchanges and, of course, the sharpeness of the one-liners. But there are also those intangible factors—a sigh, a condescending phrase, a defensive reaction—that will allow voters to make judgments about their comfort level with the two men on that stage. And that, for Romney as the challenger, is something that all the debate prep in the world can’t quite teach.