This Wednesday has been circled on Mitt Romney’s calendar for months. It is the day of the first debate against President Obama, perhaps the campaign’s final chance to change the narrative and direction of the race from Romney Flailing to Romney in Command.
And the only way to do this, of course, is to leave Obama crawling around the debate floor gasping for air and begging the Massachusetts mauler to show him some mercy.
The Romney campaign has sent plenty of signals that it intends to be in attack mode from the start, questioning Obama’s veracity, his handling of the economy, his leadership in the world. Nice guy, the message will be, but overmatched in the Oval Office.
For an Obama team that knows the fusillade is coming, the question becomes how best to deflect a cavalry charge it sees coming from several hills away.
“I think that if you are President Obama, you have to act like the attacks are silly, and you have to try to rise above it all,” said Allan Louden, a professor of political communication at Wake Forest University. “You call out what they are doing as political and as lacking in substance, and from your side try to offer as many specifics as possible.”
Communications professionals from PR pros to high-school debate coaches say something similar. When you know you are going to be on the defensive, the key is to brace yourself against the attacks by trying to reframe the debate as a choice between two alternatives, much as Obama has tried to do throughout the election season.
“He is going to have to acknowledge where there might be issues, preempt the attacks, and have his defense ready,” said Carol Green, an official at the National Debate Coaches Association and a former high-school and college debate coach. “He needs to acknowledge that there is an issue with some parts of his record but move into what he is doing to fix it or say why that particular issue doesn’t matter.”
The debate method Green refers to borrows from the field of medicine.
“This is called the inoculation theory,” she said. “It’s like getting a flu shot to inoculate you against getting sick. You get a little bit of a virus but it builds your resistance to getting something worse.”
Deflecting an attack, even more than getting in zingers, can be the difference between winning and losing. The zingers themselves have a tendency, experts say, to look overly rehearsed and can easily come off as mean or off-putting.
One of the best moments of inoculation, longtime debate watchers say, came from President Reagan’s second debate performance in 1984. In the first debate, he had come across as old and uncertain, stumbling over his words and getting key policy details confused. Walter Mondale’s campaign began to suggest quietly that Reagan was too old to serve as president in a crisis. Reagan was questioned about his matter directly and cheerfully told the moderator, “And I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale had to double over with laughter.
For a far less effective method of deflecting an opponent’s blows, look at Al Gore's performance in 2000. Every time George W. Bush accused him of using “fuzzy math” to make his Medicare and Social Security proposals work, the vice president emitted a long, loud, theatrical sigh. Bush’s blow may not have stuck, but the defense ended up being worse than the disease.
The key, strategists say, is for Obama to attempt to frame the debate right from the outset, to say something to the effect of, “What you will hear from my opponent is a series of false political attacks, with little to offer of substance other than the tired ideas of the George Bush era.” In this way, Obama will be able to avoid getting bogged down in the muck and forced to rebut piece by piece every one of Romney’s zingers. In essence, Obama will be able to say, “there you go again.”
“His task is not to get professorial and long-winded but to keep it precise and punchy,” said Bill McGowan, founder of Clarity Media Group, a communications consulting firm. McGowan suggested that Obama study tape of the famed Lloyd Bentsen—Dan Quayle vice-presidential debate of 1988. Everyone remembers the Bentsen “I knew Jack Kennedy” line, but worse for Quayle was what McGowan called the “petulant” look on his face and his response: “That was really uncalled for, senator.”
“Don’t look down, don’t flinch, don’t look like you’ve been gored,” McGowan said. “And beyond everything, don’t start scribbling notes. That is a dead giveaway that you’ve got nothing in the bag.”
And if Romney gets too frothy, there remains a decent chance he stumbles. It is worth remembering that until recently, being surrounded by a roomful of donors in Boca Raton wasn’t what sent Romney most often off-message. Instead it was going off-script during the Republican primary debates. Those sessions produced such moments as his offer to make a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry or his declaration that he wouldn’t hire an undocumented immigrant because “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake.”
And in order to get Romney to slip up, Obama may need to try to land a few zingers of his own.
“I think playing it safe would be a disaster for him,” McGowan said. “I think he needs to anticipate what the criticisms from Romney are and have a handful of responses in his back pocket.”