The Romney and Obama campaigns are lowering expectations on the eve of the first presidential debate on Wednesday. It will be the first occasion to take a measure of the aspirants as they go toe-to-toe on key issues facing Americans.
The pressure is on Romney who had a lackluster primary season, followed by an ineffective summer and a disastrous September. Polls in swing states show a growing Obama advantage, making a superb performance by Mitt Romney in the first debate a necessity. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Romney supporter, has promised the debate will be a game-changer.
Debates have had mixed influence on campaigns. Historians speak favorably of Kennedy’s performance against Richard Nixon during the first televised debates. The margin of victory by JFK, being less than 1 per cent, gives fodder to both sides of the argument about whether he won the presidency because of his TV performance. Each debate has its own dynamic — its influence truly measured once the votes have been counted.
Will this debate be any different? The primary season revealed a polished Romney who dominated in debates against multiple candidates. Many commentators, and some Obama operatives, have suggested Romney is a better debater than Obama. They point to Obama’s lackluster debate performance against Hillary Clinton in 2008 and argue that while he gives a good speech, he is prone to ramble and be too professional for the TV debate format.
While there is some truth to all this, Romney did poorly in a one-on-one debate with Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994. Time has passed, of course, but the multiple debate format of the primary season with such mediocre candidates as Rick Perry and Herman Cain favoured the more experienced Romney. In a one-on-one debate, character, temperament, body language, comfort level, and an in-depth knowledge of issues takes centerstage.
The economy clearly should favor Romney. The Obama record, while defendable, can be easily demonized as a series of failed expectations and promises. Romney can reset the dial by being both critical and by offering solutions in a way that is presidential and reassuring. After all, the former Massachusetts governor has a record of achievement and accomplishments that could resonate in 90 minutes of unfiltered communications.
Obama has the advantages of incumbency. While his record is mixed, he can argue about where he started and the gains he’s made. The Democrats won the wars with an effective message on progress and the need to stay the course. Bill Clinton’s convention speech is the best template for Obama as he prepares.
Ultimately, the winner of a political debate is measured against expectations. Romney is expected to be a better debater. On October 3, he must be dominant, keep the President on the defensive while remaining compelling and appealing. A clear win in the first debate will not gain him the presidency, but it will give him momentum for the next debates and the November 6 countdown. Not only will the Romney-Ryan ticket benefit but also it will energize the GOP race for Senate and House control. With few undecided left according to polls and early voting already underway , it may not be enough to save him but it will keep him in the game at a crucial moment.