With Obama assuming a small but clear lead in the polls with five weeks remaining in the race, the candidates’ willingness to nearly disappear from public view for 48 to 72 hours reflects the high stakes of the three October debates for both men.
If 2008 is a guide, the nationally televised debates could reach audiences of up to 60 million viewers, by far the largest platform either nominee will have to reach voters. Both sides view the debates collectively as the event with the most potential to alter the dynamics of the race in the final month.
Republican strategists, fretting over Obama’s recent rise, said the debates could be the last best chance for Romney to deliver a decisive blow, change the narrative and steady his campaign. They said Romney would try to force the president out of his comfort zone by attacking Obama’s economic record, then hope the president blunders trying to defend it.
“The president has compiled a miserable economic record over the last four years, with higher unemployment, lower incomes, rising energy costs, out-of-control Washington spending,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. “Those are some of the issues you can expect Mitt Romney to talk about.”
Asked about the stakes Friday, Romney told reporters that the public “will listen carefully to the conversation . . . and they’ll decide who can help their family, who will be able to get our economy going.”
If he is persuasive, Romney added, “I’ll get elected.”
Obama and his advisers say they recognize the risks. They have sought to play down expectations, noting that this will be Obama’s first debate in four years, while Romney has had more recent practice with a string of primary debates. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina called Romney a “very skilled debater” and said that Romney won 19 of the 23 Republican primary debates.
“The Romney team has made no secret of the intense preparation of their candidate, and historically challengers benefit from simply being on the stage with the incumbent,” Messina said this week. “So we are clear-eyed about how prepared he will be and about how difficult this debate will be.”
Although his advisers have been mum on the details, the president’s cram sessions are likely to include rigorous policy briefings, mock debates — with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) playing the role of Romney — and a critical review of Obama’s own bad habits.
Obama has been concentrating on shortening his responses, aides said, because his tendency to slip into professor mode when explaining things limits the media-friendly sound bites that can form lasting impressions on viewers.