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Romney eyes comeback in first debate against Obama

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2012-10-03

The US election enters its final phase Wednesday night with the first presidential debate. But with US President Barack Obama leading in polls, the pressure falls on Republican challenger Mitt Romney to turn things around.

The US presidential election will enter its tense final phase Wednesday night with the much-awaited first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

But with Obama maintaining a clear, if narrow, lead in national and swing state polls, the pressure of the televised face-off rests largely on Romney’s shoulders. The Republican candidate’s former rival Newt Gingrich went as far as to call the debate, to take place in Denver, Colorado (at 7pm local time, 3am GMT), and focus on domestic policy, “the most important single event in Mitt Romney’s political career”.

Romney’s previous two opportunities to pull ahead of Obama – his pick of conservative Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate and the Republican convention in Florida – gave him little traction; his advisors, increasingly panicked by predictions that the president could be headed for a comfortable reelection, are therefore crossing their fingers for a triumphant first debate performance by Romney to turn things around before November 6.

“The debates are more important for Romney, not only because he’s behind in the polls, but because he’s the challenger and is still less well-known than the president,” said John Fortier, a right-leaning political analyst at thinktank Bipartisan Policy Centre. “It’s an opportunity for him to show the American people who he is and how he measures up to President Obama.”

Romney’s advantage?

Most experts consider the two politicians evenly matched when it comes to debating skills. Though he has been widely criticised as a mediocre campaigner, Romney was praised for his sharp performances in the 20 debates during Republican primary season. And Obama, after a bruising 2008 primary battle against Hillary Clinton and subsequent match-up against John McCain, is also considered a seasoned debater.

But as the incumbent, this will be the president’s first time coming face-to-face with a challenger who will confront and contradict him on a public stage.

Moreover, Romney could get a boost in stature just by appearing with Obama in a forum that treats the two as equals. “Romney will get points for merely being on the same stage as the president and fielding questions,” said Darrell West, a political scientist at the left-leaning Brookings Institution.

Many analysts have noted that a single debate is unlikely to dramatically alter the direction of the race. “In a highly polarised electorate where most minds already are made up…it would take a major error or a dreadful performance to make a meaningful difference,” West noted.

But recent history suggests that the first televised face-off between two presidential candidates can, in fact, reset the dynamics of the election. In 2000, Al Gore’s impatient sighs, contrasted with George W. Bush’s affable manner, were seen as a serious detriment to an otherwise fine performance; four years later, a surprisingly combative showing helped John Kerry pull even in the polls against incumbent Bush; and in 2008, Obama’s calm demeanour and carefully worded responses were seen as evidence that the relatively inexperienced senator could look presidential.

Romney has ‘a lot of explaining to do’

In the days before Wednesday’s debate, Obama and Romney have been hitting the books: studying statistics, brushing up on policy details, and enduring gruelling trial debates with surrogates (Obama commissioned Kerry to play Romney in a mock match-up).

Romney is expected to put Obama on the spot about his economic record, challenging the president’s assertion that things are getting better by pointing to still-weak jobs numbers. “He has to remind the country that the president has been in office for nearly four years and the economy is still bad,” Fortier said.

Still, with a recovery that is feeble but nevertheless underway, and polls indicating that Romney has failed to make the election a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy, the candidate will have to do more than point fingers. Both Obama and moderator Jim Lehrer will push the Republican to articulate concrete, detailed solutions of his own. “Romney needs to show the country that he is someone who can competently deal with our economic problems,” Fortier noted.

Obama, meanwhile, will look to turn in a steady performance that allows him to maintain his edge in the polls and start closing the deal with voters reluctant to give him a second term. To do that, Fortier said, the president will pursue what has been a fruitful tactic of painting Romney as “rich and out of touch”, a poster boy for privileged Americans, who cares little for the working class and wants to further lower taxes for the wealthy.

“Romney has a lot of explaining to do about how his tax policies add up, and his demeaning comments about 47% of Americans [remarks caught on tape in which Romney told donors it was not his job to take care of the 47% of Americans dependent on government aid],” West said.

Curbing weaknesses – and expectations

Both candidates will be careful to keep their less flattering tendencies in check. The often long-winded Obama “should avoid seeming arrogant or professorial”, according to Fortier. That means he will strive to keep policy explanations crisp and concise. And mindful of his decisive lead over Romney in “likeability” polls, Obama will avoid remarks like his infamous jab at Hillary Clinton in a 2008 debate (when she said he was likeable, he replied coolly: “You’re likeable enough”).

Romney, for his part, “should avoid seeming stiff or out of touch,” Fortier said. Pundits have speculated that the Republican will deliver a few rehearsed “zingers” – quotable quips that journalists can use in morning-after headlines – while also making sure not to appear too hostile toward a president that remains personally popular. Romney must also stay clear of gaffes that call attention to his wealth, like his offer, during a Republican debate last winter, to bet one of his rivals “10,000 dollars”.

Traditionally, both camps try to lower expectations for their candidate ahead of a debate, so that even an average performance can be spun as a victory. The result has been some uncharacteristically warm mutual praise, with the Romney team calling the president “one of the most talented political communicators in modern history” and Obama’s campaign deeming Romney “a prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater”.

Even the famously confident president himself played the game earlier this week. “Governor Romney is a good debater,” he admitted before throngs of supporters in Las Vegas. “I’m just okay.”

Date created : 2012-10-03


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