During the Republican primary debates, candidate Newt Gingrich essentially had one message: I can debate President Obama better than anyone, so vote for me. Like him or not, Gingrich is smart, quick-on-his-feet and can dial up some zingers.
Those looking for more entertainment, contentiousness and, yes, maybe a better challenger to President Obama, might appreciate the former House Speaker going against the incumbent in the three presidential debates starting next week (Oct. 3). Alas, Gingrich was knocked out and it will be Mitt Romney on stage with President Obama.
It’s tough to remember Romney doing much beyond playing it safe in the debates back in the primary season. For the most part, he was ahead and probably content to take a conservative approach in more ways than one.
Things are different now. The polls, the media and Romney supporters are all indicating his campaign is foundering and needs a breakthrough. Some say the debates offer him a last chance to have any shot at winning.
They may be wrong. It might be debate – singular – not debates.
Romney can’t land a knockout blow next Wednesday in the first meeting, but he does need to land a few potent jabs to persuade viewers to give him all three rounds. Without a strong performance, it could be hard for him to get the volume of undecided voters he needs to tune in to the final two debates.
He’ll have a large audience next week, but has to build momentum. He has to give people an excuse to skip (or record) “Modern Family” (Oct. 16) and turn away from “Monday Night Football” (Oct. 22). And, click away from post-season baseball, especially if teams in swing states are playing. (A debate between the vice presidential candidates is scheduled for Oct. 11.)
Republicans may feel the media is pro-Obama and quick to criticize Romney. A new Pew Research poll shows 45% of Republicans feel the press is being “too tough” on Romney. (That's about the same who felt so about McCain four years ago.) It’s surprising the figure is (and was) below 50%.
But Romney supporters should realize the media is their friend. The press -- yes, including MSNBC -- would like nothing more than a close race. They’d love to spend the week after the first debate talking about how Romney outfoxed Obama and changed the trajectory of the race. They’d love polls showing Ohioans overwhelmingly feel Romney won and many are giving him a second look to come out.
So, how does Romney do it? The first debate is about domestic policy. He can’t just go on the attack. And when he does on the economy, he’ll need a new narrative since Bill Clinton single-handedly has given Obama some credibility with the give-me-a-little-more-time argument and the stock market has rallied a bit.
Also, Romney can give the impression of being on edge. He’ll have to try and combat that. People want a president they think won’t buckle under pressure. Romney doesn’t always seem persuasive there. Obama does and has a record to back it up.
In any case, approve of Romney’s business record or not, his success no doubt came with loads of presentations before some very smart people where he carefully laid out persuasive arguments to buy this or invest there or restructure that. He’s got to call on that ability -- it has to be inside him somewhere -- to make a voter-friendly case with specifics.
Otherwise, he could lose the election next week. Which would be a bummer not just for him, but for cable TV networks desperately wanting at least the appearance of a close race to drive ratings over the next month or so. Even Rachel Maddow might want Romney to put up more of a fight for a while.