The GOP convention is a week away. Much of the country will get its most extended and unfiltered view of the Republican ticket. Mitt Romney has learned to deliver a solid speech, and he stands to do himself some good with low-information voters and those who’ve been primed to think he is the model for Gordon Gecko. His speech will arguably be his most important event, but that will soon be followed by the debates, which may afford him an unique opportunity to seal the deal with voters.
Mitt Romney and President Obama will have their first of three debates on Oct. 3. Obama will not have debated anyone for a year. If he keeps stiffing the White House press corps, he will reach Oct. 3 after going more than three months without a full press conference.
Romney, by contrast, had almost 20 debates in the GOP primary. He’s taken confrontational questioning from the media on the campaign trail and in interviews (e.g. on “60 Minutes”).
Will Obama be up to it? He may well find Romney to be among the most formidable debate opponents. Recall Romney’s performance in Florida (dismantling Newt Gingrich) and in Arizona (doing the same to Rick Santorum). Romney can hold in his head and wield a great deal of information. Liberals insist the president is among the greatest orators of his time and Romney a virtual gaffe machine. But you wonder who really has the edge.
Obama will have several challenges, some of which are common to all incumbents who debate. Merely by being on the same stage, smiling and appearing informed and competent Romney goes a long way toward satisfying undecided voters who are already not pleased with the president’s performance. If Romney doesn’t lose his cool or make some terrible gaffe, chances are he’ll come off better than many expect, especially given the demonization campaign waged by the Obama campaign. In short, Obama (like Jimmy Carter) has built a campaign around making his opponent unacceptable, which is a tall order with a competent debate opponent.
The president is also handicapped by fact-deficiency. For example, he likes to say the GOP’s plan will shift as much as $6,400 in costs to seniors for Medicare. It’s practically a talking point for Democrats and it’s utter nonsense. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board points out, this “fact” is based on an original Congressional Budget Office assessment of Paul Ryan’s first iteration of Medicare reform. It no longer applies. (“Over the last year Mr. Ryan has made major adjustments to his original proposal as he sought a compromise with Democrats. In its most up-to-date analysis, CBO admits that it “does not have the capability at this time to estimate such effects” in the new version. That is, it does not have the tools to make its $6,400 exaggeration again.”) Will Obama be able to make these sorts of assertions, with Romney poised to debunk him methodically?
Moreover, much of Obama’s campaign is based on misdirection and personal assault, which is particularly unhelpful in a debate. In answer to “Why is unemployment still over 8 percent?,” Obama can’t very well answer, “Romney only released two years of tax returns.” Is Obama going to scream “Bain!” when Romney points to the 23 million unemployed, the record-high poverty and the $5 trillion added to the debt?
And finally, there are no patsies in the moderator lineup. The Romney team reportedly nixed anyone from MSNBC (“The [debate] commission sent signals that the [Fox] network was in strong contention, people familiar with the process said, but that changed in the last month. The Obama campaign raised questions about the network because of its conservative leanings. The Romney campaign objected to MSNBC because of its liberal bent and threatened to boycott if one of its anchors was selected.”) Among those selected, Candy Crowley may be the most underrated and most effective questioner, pressing Republicans and Democrats alike. Obama is likely not going to get away with his standard talking points and platitudes.
In sum, Romney has two big opportunities to reach the American people. The first comes next week in Tampa. But for the first time since 1980 the Republican challenger has an opening to knock the president down to size.