Romney will conduct a two-day boot camp, with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) playing the role of the president, as Portman did in 2008 to prepare Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for debates with Obama. Portman has been a semi-regular on the Romney campaign plane in the past several weeks.
As Romney aides are quick to point out, Obama has participated in one-on-one debates more recently than Romney, who hasn’t faced a head-to-head matchup since his successful Massachusetts governor’s race in 2002.
This summer, the president had several practice sessions at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. Senior White House adviser David Plouffe, communications director Dan Pfeiffer, strategist Anita Dunn and others provided guidance. Kerry was tapped to stand in for Romney because of his familiarity with both the debate format and Romney’s record in Massachusetts.
Aides said the president will again frame the election as a choice between his and Romney’s policies. Obama has warned voters that his rival would harm the middle class by giving tax breaks to the wealthy and rolling back Wall Street regulations.
Republican strategists cautioned that the president is a skilled orator, one whose windy approach could help him deflect criticism, filibuster through answers and run out the clock. The key for Romney, they said, is to force Obama to stray from his prepared script.
These strategists point to recent moments such as when Obama, pressed during a televised Univision forum in Miami, stated that he has been unable to “change Washington from the inside,” a remark Romney pounced on to suggest the president has been a failure in his first term.
“This is the first time in four years where the president is standing toe-to-toe with a person on a stage who will have no reticence telling him directly to his face what a bad job he’s doing, and that’s always a dangerous moment for the president,” said GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s campaign. Romney is “going to want to go out and draw blood.”
GOP strategists say that Obama also can come across as arrogant. During the Democratic primary in 2008, Obama was mocked when he told then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during a debate that she was “likable enough,” an aside that struck many viewers as condescending.
“President Obama is obviously charismatic, a good speaker,” said Charlie Black, another GOP consultant who helped McCain in 2008. “His only mistakes or rough patches are when there are unanticipated questions or he has not rehearsed something. . . . He’s combative, and he can even be dismissive.”
Romney will have his own challenges. Although he generally stood out as the best performer in the GOP primary field, Romney became the object of some ridicule after a December debate in which he offered to make a $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry over a disagreement on health-care policy. For some, the moment reinforced the perception that Romney’s wealth renders him out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Against Obama, Romney “must forcefully insert himself into the conversation,” said GOP communications consultant Brett O’Donnell, who was widely credited with helping Romney shore up his primary debate performances.
“He can’t let the president filibuster,” added O’Donnell, who has since left the Romney campaign after reportedly clashing with other aides. “He has to stay on offense, not by attacking but by staying on message and focusing on the economy and tying the president to his economic policies.”
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.