What to watch for in the second presidential debate

October 16, 2012

President Obama and Mitt Romney will take the stage tonight at Hofstra University for their second general election debate -- the most important debate since, well, their first debate 13 days ago. (Watch the debate LIVE)


VIDEO: The town hall debate you've already seen: We take a look back on how President Obama and Mitt Romney have responded to Americans’ questions on domestic and foreign policy issues.

Given President Obama's stinker of a performance the first time out -- 71 percent of likely voters said Romney won in a new Washington post-ABC News poll -- the pressure will be on the incumbent to show he has a pulse (and probably a bit more) tonight.

But what are the other storylines/questions to keep an eye on? We outlined a few in our Monday Fix column, and we offer a few more below. Also make sure to tune into The Fix tonight; we'll be live-tweeting the debate, which starts at 9 p.m. eastern time, and then will offer up our take on the winners and losers once it concludes.

* Can Obama find a groove?: There's a common misconception floating around the political world that Obama is a proven and gifted debater who simply had an off night in the first debate. But a look back at the totality of Obama's debate performances on the national stage suggests that his showing in Denver was not entirely inconsistent with what he has done in the past. During the 2008 general election debates against John McCain, Obama was sober, serious and guarded -- in large part because he was clearly ahead and because the Arizona senator seemed to constantly be trying to score a 10-point basket. The result? The then-Illinois senator was deemed to be a (narrow) winner. While Obama was more animated in the 2008 debates than he was in the first presidential debate of this election, his style -- professorial rather than populist -- wasn't much different. While the assumption is that Obama will do significantly better than he did the first time around, there's a deeper, underlying question: What if Obama just isn't a very good debater? He needs a strong showing this evening in order to dispel that notion.

* Obama's 'porridge' question: In the first debate, Obama was clearly too cool, seemingly disengaged from the proceedings and giving off an "I want to be somewhere else" vibe.  But, arguably, Joe Biden was too hot in the vice presidential debate -- scoffing at, laughing at and generally ridiculing Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan throughout the proceedings. For Obama to "win" this debate, he has to find some middle ground between his own debate performance and that of his vice president, with a finger on the scale toward being too hot rather than too cold. The issue with that strategy is that -- as we mentioned above -- it's not really who Obama is. He is the cool, cerebral politician, not the knife-fighting scrapper who grinds out political victories. But tonight he'll need to show some fight without coming across as manufacturing outrage. It's a fine line to walk and a test that Obama has never really had to pass in past national debates.

* Winning once is hard; winning twice is harder: Romney entered the first debate with large majorities assuming that Obama would whup him. Not so in this debate where, according to new Pew Research Center data, 41 percent of people think Obama will win and 37 percent think Romney will emerge victorious. In conversations with lots of sharp GOP operatives and elected officials, there is real concern that Romney benefited from a sort of perfect storm in the first debate (lots of economic talk, Obama checked out, a less-than-assertive moderator, etc.) that he simply won't be able to recreate this time around. While we tend to think that is a bit too pessimistic -- Romney has proven he is an able debater repeatedly during his two presidential bids -- it is true that the GOP nominee almost certainly faces a tougher task in this debate than he did in the first one.  Expectations are a tough thing to live up to -- stepping over a low bar is a hallmark of The Fix's professional life -- and Romney's first debate performance set the bar much, much higher, even if he's not necessarily the clear favorite.

* WWCCD (What will Candy Crowley Do?): The hubbub over what role debate moderator Candy Crowley can -- and should -- play consumed the 24 hours before the actual debate. (The Fix has sounded off on it here.) And, whether Crowley likes it or not -- knowing her, our guess is she hates being the story rather than covering it -- that controversy means that the political class will be heavily focused on how she decides to preside over the debate. (What people should be focused on: Crowley is only the second woman to ever moderate a presidential general election debate.) Crowley herself said Monday that she envisions her role as no different than past moderators of these sort of town hall formats. "There will be questioners to the right and left of me and in front of the candidates, and they will have the questions,” Crowley told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Monday. “And as was the case in the Charlie Gibson town-hall meeting and the Tom Brokaw town-hall meeting in presidential campaigns past, there was a time after that for follow-up and for furthering the discussion.” Here's hoping Crowley does interject when she feels it necessary to get the candidates to more directly answer the questions being asked of them by the town hall participants.

* The town hall test: As we noted in our Monday column, the town hall format -- all of the questions will be asked by undecided likely voters -- makes it tougher for both candidates to go negative against one another. But there's also another challenge for Romney and Obama in a town hall setting: They will be getting questions from real people who, very possibly, will tell of the emotional struggles they have faced over the past few years. That reality puts a premium on empathy which, to be frank, is not a real strong suit for either man. (For evidence of the power of empathy -- or a lack thereof -- check out how George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton answered a question about how the national debt had personally impacted them.) While neither Obama nor Romney is naturally empathetic as a politician, they are bad at empathy for different reasons. Romney is too conscious of stepping off script in a way that might jeopardize his overall performance. Obama is simply opposed to what he views as the false theatrics of politics. Both men will likely be called upon to connect with an audience member (or members) tonight. Can either do so convincingly? That will say a lot about who "wins."

Clinton takes 'responsibility' for Benghazi: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is providing Obama with a bit of political cover, telling CNN on Monday that any failures in the lead-up to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, rest on her shoulders.

"I take responsibility," Clinton said in response to a question about culpability. She added: "I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha."

Democrats have accused Republicans of exploiting the tragedy for political gain, but uncomfortable questions continue to dog the Obama campaign -- especially given that the consulate asked for increased security before the attacks. That request was denied.

On Sunday, top Obama adviser David Axelrod said that the decision was handled by the State Department and never reached Obama's desk.

Clinton's decision to own the situation will undoubtedly help Obama. But if the situation mushrooms into something bigger than it is now, she may jeopardize her own potential 2016 presidential campaign. Of course, that was probably the case regardless of what she said Monday.

Fixbits:

A new Suffolk University poll in New Hampshire shows Obama and Romney tied at 47 percent.

Michelle Obama's motorcade was involved in an accident Monday.

The president of a charity that Paul Ryan stopped by on Saturday says Ryan was uninvited, and he is worried that the stop could threaten donations to the charity by making it appear partisan.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has endorsed former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle (R) in the state's open Senate race after endorsing Rep. Mazie Hirono in the Democratic primary.

A new Democratic party ad hits Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock for saying "we need more zealots in the Republican Party." Meanwhile, Mourdock sought to put some distance between himself and the tea party at a debate Monday night.

The Washington Post's editorial board endorses Tim Kaine in  the Virginia Senate race.

Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson's (R) son apologizes for a birther joke.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) takes on Danny Tarkanian, the GOP congressional candidate threatening to steal a newly created and Democratic-leaning seat.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) faces a potential medical ethics investigation after a report that he had an affair with a patient and urged her to get an abortion.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee cancels its final week of ad reservations in a series of districts -- some from a position of strength and some from a position of weakness.

The New York Times has a great graphic showing the shifting presidential vote in recent decades -- by state.

Must-reads:

"Making Mitt: The Myth Of George Romney" -- John R. Bohrer, BuzzFeed

"Wisconsin, the land of persuadable voters" -- Joel Achenbach, Washington Post

"Obama, Romney have ways to make you vote" -- Ann Gerhart, Washington Post

"In battleground Ohio, Obama and Romney fight for blue-collar swing voters" -- Jason Horowitz, Washington Post

"Is the Supreme Court About To Swing Another Presidential Election?" -- Richard L. Hasen, Slate

"Montana Senate race is coming down to the wire" -- Paul Kane, Washington Post

"How Large Is Obama's Advantage In Ohio?" -- Nate Cohn, The New Republic

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Sean Sullivan · October 15, 2012