Why the First Debate Is Mitt Romney’s Most Stressful Moment Yet

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 3 2012 8:30 AM

The Race To Beat Low Expectations

There are pitfalls for both candidates. Still, this may be the most stressful thing Mitt Romney has ever done.

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Debates are particularly unnatural for the challenger because he has to do more on stage. He's got to make a good impression, connect with voters, show them he has values like their own, and deploy zingers that he and his staff have cooked up while making it look like the zingers are spontaneous. It's like batting in Little League with both your parents, the coach, and your best friend Will all giving you different advice before you get to the plate.

Romney is a very smart guy. He's not likely to forget a Cabinet agency he wants to cut (though his aversion to specificity may make him reluctant to say it). During the primary debates, Romney showed that he knows his stuff. Remember how he memorized the details of Newt Gingrich's investments and used them to string up the helpless former speaker? Romney was so good, he rendered Gingrich speechless. 

The challenge for Romney will be overmodulation. During the Republican primaries, when there was a competition to see who could beat up on the president the most, Romney turned into a cartoon of an attack dog. He vowed that in the general election he would take capitalism to the president and “stuff it down his throat.” The line was out of keeping with Romney's demeanor and flirted with making him look highly insincere. That's not a good thing for a candidate who is having trouble connecting with voters who don't trust him. 

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President Obama has to worry about complacency and arrogance. Romney is trying to win over disappointed Obama 2008 voters, which is why Monday night in Colorado he finished a rally by asking voters to "go out and find an Obama voter and convince them to join our team." Romney has to offer a better way to that pool of 24 percent of voters who have told Gallup they support Obama but that the debate might change their mind. One route to those voters is if the president walks into the caricature that Romney has been trying to paint of a chief executive over his head who has settled for a middling recovery.

Of course, Obama's team knows this is a vulnerability. For months, Obama has been pledging that he wakes up every day fighting for the middle class. The president must convey that sentiment above all else, while defending his record. 

The other big problem for the president is arrogance. He thinks he’s the smartest fellow in the room, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. He snickered at Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience in his convention speech and then dismissed him after the attack on the Libyan embassy as “shooting first and asking questions later.” Subsequent revisions of the Obama administration’s statements on Egypt and Libya suggest a half-empty presidential bandoleer. Voters may be tolerant of the president, but arrogance might test that tolerance.

Of all the issues that will be debated after the debate—from taxes to job creation to housing to Medicare—one final topic of dispute will be the shape of the race the morning after. For many in the political class, Wednesday night’s debate is Romney’s last chance. Time is running out. Early voting has already started in some key states and donors are watching nervously. Will they keep giving money to the cause if Romney looks like a loser? On the other hand, there will be two more presidential debates and two more jobs reports coming out before Election Day. The days are drawing short, but there will still be a few more venues left to surpass people’s expectations.  

Watch: Political Kombat, the 2012 campaign told through video game fights.