After months of sniping from a distance, President Obama and Mitt Romney are nearing the unsparing crucible of one-on-one debates that could alter the dynamics of the presidential campaign.
For Romney, particularly, the stakes are enormous.
After a month of missteps and missed opportunities — from his convention speech, to his reaction after the US ambassador’s death in Libya, to a video in which he described nearly half the country as government-dependent “victims” — Romney faces three debates in the national spotlight, beginning Oct. 3 in Denver, that could bolster or bury his chances.
“Unquestionably, he has to do well in the first debate,” said Rob Gray, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser in Romney’s successful 2002 campaign for Massachusetts governor. “There’s more on the line for him, whereas Obama has proven before that he can handle it.”
More than any other forum between now and Election Day, the debates will give the candidates the biggest audience — probably more than 50 million people each night — to hear their message delivered live and unfiltered.
The bar for Romney, strategists from both parties said, is higher than the president’s. The Republican nominee trails in the polls; GOP candidates have distanced themselves from Romney’s dismissive criticism of the “47 percent” of Americans who pay no federal income tax; and his image as an economic Mr. Fix-it has yet to catch fire.
“Folks in the Republican Party and the super PACs are going to watch that first debate,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who advised Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 and Senator John F. Kerry’s in 2004. “If Romney doesn’t improve greatly, you’re going to see some of the super PACs — although they’ll deny it — move their attention to the Senate and congressional races.” Shrum also advised Senator Edward M. Kennedy in his 1994 race against Romney.
In Denver, the first presidential debate will focus on domestic policy and devote half of its 90 minutes to the economy. The following debates will be held Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., featuring audience questions in a town meeting format; and Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., on foreign policy.
For Romney, the first debate is a chance to offer specific remedies for a sputtering economy that he says desperately needs the turnaround skills he honed during his private-equity career.
He has failed to persuade the majority of Americans that his prescriptions are more promising than the president’s, according to recent polls.
“He has to essentially convince the American people to fire Barack Obama, but he has to make that argument in a way that is positive and optimistic and with specifics,” said Ben Coes, who managed Romney’s 2002 campaign. “We’re past the point where mere rhetoric will work.”
Campaign officials said they have begun pivoting to a sharper, personal, more detailed message targeted at middle-class pocketbooks.
Romney has several positives as he prepares for the debates, analysts and campaign aides said. He has the combat experience of 20 debates during the Republican primaries. The public will not expect him to match Obama’s oratorical skills. And challengers often seem enlarged simply by sharing a stage with an incumbent president.
However, Romney can stumble when he veers off script. The opposition’s image of him as an out-of-touch elitist was reinforced when he offered to make a $10,000 bet with Governor Rick Perry of Texas during a primary debate; advised struggling young people to start a business by borrowing from their parents; and made reference to his wife’s two Cadillacs.
“The biggest thing [his advisers are] going to do with him — I don’t know whether he’ll take it — is they have to make him stick to the script. He instinctively says the wrong thing when he’s spontaneous,” Shrum said.
Shannon O’Brien, the Massachusetts state treasurer who lost to Romney in the 2002 governor’s race, echoed that assessment. “When he’s scripted and has the party line down, he’s a good debater,” O’Brien said. “But when he goes off script or is put off balance, that’s where he makes mistakes.”
Romney faces a difficult balancing act, analysts said, of detailing how he is different from Obama without resorting to unproductive attacks.
“You want to try to knock out the other guy but at the same time be presidential. It can be tricky to pull off both,” Gray said.
Romney is not the only candidate with debate liabilities. Obama tends to be long-winded, professorial, and not geared for sound bites.
If Romney falters in the debates, the fault probably will not lie in a lack of preparation. The candidate began his homework in June, squeezing in two sessions of debate prep during a three-day retreat for big donors in Park City, Utah. And while the Democrats held their convention in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this month, Romney retreated to the seclusion of a mountainside home owned by Kerry Healey, his former lieutenant governor, in West Windsor, Vt.
There, Romney faced off in timed debates against Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who played the same role in 2008 as an Obama stand-in against Senator John McCain. Portman filled the part so well that McCain later joked, “I hate him still.”
Romney reportedly also is using the Marriott hotel in Burlington, Mass., for mock debates. However, according to Gray, Romney has an aversion to rehearsal; poring over research is more to his liking.
“When it was time to stand at the podium, kick on the lights, and start the stopwatch, it wasn’t his favorite thing to do,” Gray said of Romney’s preparation in 2002.
In February, after well-received debates preceding Romney’s primary victory in Florida, the campaign told new debate coach Brett O’Donnell that his services were no longer required. O’Donnell had been widely praised in the media for Romney’s improved performances.
As Romney prepares, so does the president, but Obama’s campaign aides are trying to tamp down expectations. On Air Force One last week, traveling press secretary Jennifer Psaki noted that while Romney has debated 20 times this election cycle, Obama has not participated in one for four years.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN contributor who played George W. Bush in a mock debate against Kerry in 2004, said the lag time since his last debate could be a challenge for Obama.
“Imagine if the Super Bowl was the first game you played this year,” said Begala, who also is senior adviser to Priorities USA Action, the leading super-PAC supporting Obama.
The short-answer format also does not play to Obama’s strengths, said David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York, who co-authored a book on presidential debates.
“In my judgment, he’s not a particularly sterling debater,” Birdsell said. “His best forum is the stemwinder prepared speech, not the relatively tinier nuggets of reasons and discourse we find in the debate forum.”
A campaign aide said the president’s prep work, including mock debates where Kerry is playing Romney, has not been as exhaustive as Romney’s.
“President Obama has spent time reviewing Governor Romney’s record and proposals, primarily during campaign travel. As the first debate approaches, he will spend additional time preparing, said the aide, who asked not to be identified.
“But in contrast to Mitt Romney, President Obama has had to cut back some of his preparation already because of his duties as president. He certainly hasn’t participated in five mock debates in 48 hours as the Romney campaign told Politico that the governor did.”
Few debates deliver a one-line knockout punch, although Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 scored big. Reagan’s avuncular tsk-tsk to President Carter — “There you go again, Mr. President” — is credited with helping turn a tight race into a landslide. And Bentsen, who met Dan Quayle in a vice presidential debate, scoffed when Quayle compared his experience to that of a youthful John F. Kennedy.
“I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen said.
“That was one of the few times I can think of,” Begala said, “when the other guy went in and beat him up and took his lunch money.”
In 1976, President Ford committed an infamous stumble when he pronounced in a debate against Carter that the Soviet Union did not dominate Eastern Europe.
According to Birdsell, debates generally influence the “ends of the barbell” of the audience — viewers who are knowledgeable and looking for new clues, and those who are looking at the candidates for the first time.
However, Shrum said, debates can move the needle a few points. But looking ahead, he added, “I don’t believe that Mitt Romney will suddenly morph into JFK or that Barack Obama will morph into Gerald Ford.”