As impressive a debate performance as it was for Mitt Romney, there are 33 days until the presidential election. I’ll be looking for answers to these 10 questions:
1. Should Romney change his ads? He is more effective than many knew when he looks at the camera and explains stuff to the American people. It might be a good idea to dump some of the clutter, the ads that look like every other ad, and instead use debate footage and Romney speaking directly to viewers.
2. Can Bill Clinton be used against Obama? Last night the voters saw an ineffective, surly president. He’s no Bill Clinton, quite obviously. His outing certainly could be used to undermine the argument that Obama is the best we can do. Bill Clinton said not even he could have fixed the economy? Oh, Bill, don’t be so modest! Judging from Obama’s lack of ideas and unpleasant demeanor, it may be easier to make the case that, with a better president, we sure would have had better results.
3. Will the media coverage of Obama's record toughen? As I noted earlier, many of Obama’s faults (both policy and personal) were on full display for the voters last night, shocking his supporters and perhaps embarrassing the media just a tad. Have they not really examined his record sufficiently? (As my kids would say, ya think?!) The media will likely kvell if Obama does even modestly better next time, but in the meantime (and it is nearly two weeks until the next presidential debate), Obama might get some long overdue, more exacting coverage.
4. Sensing the president’s vulnerability, will the trickle of whistleblowers on Libya become a flood, raising new and even more troubling details before the election? You might even put Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on that list. If Obama isn’t going to survive this election, shouldn’t they look out for their own reputations?
5. Does this impact the Senate races? Democrats will not likely be thrilled to see Obama show up in their states, while GOP Senate candidates may breathe a sigh of relief. Even in a state that Romney won’t win (e.g. Massachusetts), being linked to the Republican nominee may no longer be a disadvantage for GOP Senate candidates. Take Ohio: A boost of a couple points for Romney might be the difference between winning and losing for Republican Josh Mandel (who is currently running ahead of the top of the ticket).
6. Will the bad debate performance force Obama out of his cocoon of soft-news outlets and onto serious news shows? He sure could use some practice. Moreover, a better appearance on a highly watched Sunday news show, for example, might give him an opportunity to test out some new material and revive his devastated followers.
7. Can the Romney team put day after day of error-free campaigning together? It has often seemed (even after primary wins in the winter and spring) that a good news day or two would be followed by another gaffe or stumble. Romney showed extraordinary discipline last night. He and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will need plenty of that in the days ahead to keep the momentum.
8. Does this affect the campaign map? A few points in the polls (a very likely result after the public absorbs the debate and the coverage) may put the nail in the coffin of a couple states for Obama (e.g., North Carolina) and pull others back into contention (e.g., Michigan). Whenever Romney can expand the map and make Obama spend time and money in multiple states, he gets more latitude to pick and choose his spots. The broader the path to 270 electoral votes, the better for Romney.
9. Is there a significant movement among independents? Much of Romney’s pitch last night (caring for others, not favoring the rich, his interactions with ordinary Americans) was aimed at non-ideological or moderate voters. He was doing well in a number of national polls with independents even before the debate. (For example, in the NPR/Democracy Corps/Resurgent Republic poll, Romney led by 4 points among independents, in the CNN poll by 8 points and in the Post/ABC poll by 4 points. Of 13 recent polls, he is ahead or within the margin of error in all but two.) If the debate helped persuade more independents to move his way, Obama will be back to the age-old problem of trying to reassure his disgusted liberal base while keeping independents in the fold.
10. Does Obama have to go more positive? The natural inclination of his base is to come at Romney with a baseball bat in the next debate, but that’s problematic on TV, especially in a town-hall setting. Does Obama need to fill out his agenda, come up with something more compelling on the jobs front other than hiring a bunch of teachers and sending millions to community college? It couldn’t hurt.