8 Questions

Dan Balz on what to expect
in the presidential debates

Question 2: What are winning debate strategies for Obama and Romney?

The strategy that helped Romney win many of the Republican primary debates isn’t the strategy he needs in Denver. In those debates, he tacked to the right against conservative opponents. In this debate, he’ll need to reach to the center and hope he doesn’t rile his base.

A Republican strategist offered this advice: “He can’t be in your face or over the top but has to challenge Obama, show off his knowledge of the economy ... and get across that he knows what buttons to push, he knows how to fix this and Obama has failed at every turn. No pressure.”

Romney also needs to soften an image that took another hit with his comment about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes, whom he said see themselves as victims and have become dependent on government.

“He needs people to wonder if the case against him is so badly flawed that they should reexamine his programs,” said Samuel Popkin, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Republican strategist Matt Schlapp outlined Romney’s multiple goals this way: “Romney’s strategy is to pierce the thin skin of the president and still find a way to improve his favorables. Like Mr. Rodgers with a knife under his cardigan.

Advice for the president is more consistent: avoid looking arrogant, even against an opponent he seems not to respect; avoid engaging Romney; avoid attacking Romney; avoid talking too much about the past. “He doesn’t need to score a knockout or even win on points,” said Democratic strategist Matt Bennett. “He just needs to avoid a big mistake.”

Above all he needs to channel some of the arguments about the economy that former president Bill Clinton made at the Democratic convention. Lynn Vavreck, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, said Obama must make people believe the economy is getting better. “Obama needs to own this growth, slow as it is,” she said.

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