With the unexpected "Clinton Bounce" from the Democratic convention, the good news is that there is no Clinton on the ballot, the merits of the case against Obama have not changed (probably improved with the demonstrated failure of "leading from behind"), Romney and his PACs have plenty of money, and the debates offer a real opportunity to make the case to a large audience. So, what to look for?
Of the presidential debates on October 3 (Jim Lehrer of PBS; domestic), October 16 (Candy Crowley of CNN; domestic and international), and October 22 (Bob Schieffer of CBS; international) the first offers the best chance for Romney to make his case on the economy. The vice presidential debate on October 11 (Martha Raddatz of ABC; domestic and international) may show the greatest distinctions but will be less important. The presidential debate audience is projected to be some 50 million - more than twice that of the convention speeches.
Perhaps the first question is what are debates about - substance or imagery? Much has been made over the years about the Nixon-Kennedy debates where the latter's youthful optimism contrasted with Nixon's somewhat bedraggled appearance, and Reagan's good natured "there you go again" response to a point made by Jimmy Carter. You can bet that the make-up experts in both camps will do well; if there is any risk it is that Romney will come in too tightly wound. Obama will be rehearsing with John Kerry (who has a history with Romney from Massachusetts) while Romney will be rehearsing with Rob Portman (who played that role with John McCain.) The staffs will be working overtime to find that one precious zinger.
On the substance, I've got to believe that Romney has the advantage if he doesn't roll out his 59 point plan. He has the recent experience of the 20 Republican debates as well as earlier contests while running for the Senate and governor in Massachusetts. Obama had his experience in 2008 where he did adequately, but this is not his forte of speechifying and his refusal to hold press conferences for the past two years reflects a discomfort with hostile or follow-up questions. This will be more facts, and less rhetoric with the fact checkers able to confront the fabricator.
Romney is a smart guy with smart advisors who should be able to figure out what he needs focus on: the failure of Obama to do much to fix the economy in four years; the absence of any Democratic plans to make things different in a second term (goals, but no plans); the unending trillon dollar deficits which will crush our kids and our ability to provide leadership in a world which needs us. It would be good to call out Obama on his choice to not address the country's major issues (as reflected in the absence of budgets), in favor of demagoguing the Republicans who are willing to offer serious solutions for serious problems. This is the time and the forum to test the hypothesis that the American people are looking for leadership to address our long term economic issues. There are a few areas where he will need to play defense - immigration for one - but he is the right of center guy running in a right of center country and the debates should be his to lose.
And this message from a friend in Washington.
bill bowen - 9/14/2012