What Obama must do at the townhall

John Parisella on what's at play in tonight's debate

While presidential scholars argue over the influence of debates on presidential results, there is no doubt the first Obama-Romney debate turned the campaign into a horse race. Democrats have barely recovered from President Obama’s lackluster performance on Oct. 3. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is attracting larger crowds and is now leads in such key battleground states as Florida and Virginia.

With the vice-presidential debate behind us, momentum favors Romney. It is clear the former Massachusetts Governor has changed the perception created by his mixed performance on the campaign trail since the debate, and the image created by the Obama campaign ads. The final two debates could go a long way in making Romney appear presidential enough to become the third challenger since 1932 to beat an incumbent President.

Following a spirited debate performance by Vice President Joe Biden, Obama must now display similar energy and engagement to seize the advantage he had less than two weeks ago. He must show passion for his achievements and present a vision for the next four years. Biden made a valiant and effective effort against Republican Paul Ryan, but voters choose the top of the ticket and not the running mate.

I still consider Romney a more natural debater than the professoral and aloof President. Tonight’s debate features a town-hall format and deals with national security, which brings the contenders in direct contact with the voter. The answers and the arguments must be crisp and focused. No time for hesitation or fumbling through notes. And all this must be done in a congenial, voter-friendly manner.

For Obama to stage a debate comeback and possibly win the encounter, he must show, as Bill Clinton did so expertly at the Democratic National Convention, that the first four years of an Obama administration improved the lot of Americans. He must show how he has made the world more respectful of America as a world power, and made it safer by hunting down Osama Bin Laden.

Obama must also argue passionately that economic recovery and economic security are essential ingredients to a strong nation. Obama must show how Obamacare was part of a grander scheme as was his financial institutional reform. A revived economy, improved national security and a more inclusive vision for the future of America is better than a return to Bush-type policies that appear to be in Romney’s policy playbook (deregulation, lower taxes, higher military spending and a more aggressive stance with China and the Middle East ).

Obama should expect a continuation of the new, moderate Romney backtracking on two years of what his detractors call “flip flopping” and hard right positions. He should never forget that when his opponent speaks, he is still on camera with the split-screen. Finally, it is a given that the political centre is where elections are won in America. This political centre is what Obama must defend, displaying his passion for the road travelled under his leadership, and a vision to where he intends to bring his country in the next four years. This is the best path for winning this presidential contest. Anything less means losing the debates and possibly the election.