Team Obama’s Dilemma: Preparing for Final Debate

Hit too hard, and he risks turning off independent voters. Too soft, and Romney regains momentum. James Warren reports on Team Obama’s final debate prep.

Jewel Samad, AFP / Getty Images

Buoyed by a sharply improved second debate performance, President Obama’s basic rhetorical game plan for Monday’s finale remains the same: be energetic, passionate and delineate differences with Mitt Romney.

The two sides were huddling Friday with officials of the presidential debate commission in Boca Raton, Fla., to hash out details, including a structure that will include 8-minute-long segments (as opposed to six minutes the last time) in which the two can argue specific questions posed by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News.

The general subject will be foreign policy, though there may well be an opening near the end to circle back to core domestic economic issues, since topics such as China and international trade inevitably point back to Main Street. Unlike the town hall format on display in Hempstead, N.Y., there will be two minutes for closing arguments by each candidate.

Obama’s camp was thrilled Tuesday with a performance that didn’t force them to strain in their post-debate spinning of media. But it also raised some questions about tactics for Monday—including just how aggressive the president should be, according to sources familiar with their internal discussions.

Both sides see risks in crossing the line from feisty to belligerent in ways that conceivably could turn off some among the small sliver of true undecideds or “soft” supporters on either side. It’s thus no surprise that the Obama camp is mulling how they can come off as tough and decisive, even combative, but also have him openly acknowledge the public’s unease with the quarrelsome nature of politics these days, especially in Congress.

Whether Romney could provide an opening remains to be seen. There’s a view within the Obama camp that Romney’s self-image as a can-do chief executive sometimes manifests itself in ways that come off as impatient and peevish—or, as one aide put it, “like the CEO who thinks he knows everything better and is in charge of the whole discussion.”

If Romney interrupts a lot, that might provide Obama an opportunity to at least feign chagrin at the lack of civility in politics—a move that might move the needle with independents, these sources say.

Aides failed to properly prepare Obama for the frequent use of the split screen on TV during the first debate, they now acknowledge; that only accentuated Obama’s occasional air of diffidence, even condescension.

Interestingly, there were apparently no significant second thoughts voiced Friday by either camp about Tuesday’s lively Hempstead confrontation as they huddled with the commission about logistics of the finale in Boca Raton. Despite much harrumphing by conservative pundits about moderator Candy Crowley of CNN, there were no qualms about her handling of matters voiced by Romney’s representatives on Friday, according to a source close to the commission—even her spontaneous fact-check of Mitt Romney’s attack on President Obama’s Rose Garden talk about Libya.

The implications seem readily apparent for the Schieffer, a much-trusted elder statesman of the capital press corps: He’ll be able to ask what he wants when he wants.