Tonight, President Obama and Mitt Romney go "mano a mano" in the first of their three debates.
Fair or not, Romney is perceived as the underdog and some have argued that Romney must make his case in the first debate or it's all over. While I believe that Romney has three bites at the apple, it is incumbent upon him to rise to the occasion against the incumbent.
So what must Romney do tonight and over the next several weeks to convince the American voter to unseat President Obama and elect him as the next President of the United States?
To begin with, Romney must plant the seeds of doubt on the Obama presidency and germinate them -- fast.
It would be wise for Romney to draw attention to Obama's unwillingness to accept responsibility for his actions. Romney must remind the nation that Obama proclaimed "a new era of responsibility" when he was sworn into office but has spent his term blaming ATMs, the Arab Spring, and tsunamis, amongst other things, for his shortcomings.
To pick up on this point, Obama recently told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes, "As president I bear responsibility for everything -- to some degree." Romney could ask, "Could you imagine Harry Truman saying, "The buck stops here -- to some degree? How far has the Democratic Party fallen?"
Romney should turn next to Obama's incompetence in office. Let's look at the deficit. Romney could say something along these lines:
President Obama, you pledged to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years. Yet in the past four years your spending policies have led to an increase in the deficit of $5 trillion -- and counting.
The deficit doesn't matter to you. If it did, you would have been able to tell David Letterman how large the deficit is.
So why should the American people believe you will reduce the deficit by one penny in the next four years when you couldn't reduce it by one penny in the past four years?
When the third debate turns to foreign policy, Romney could remind voters of Obama's ineptness concerning the terrorist attack in Libya which claimed the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans:
Why did your administration tell the American people that the attacks in Benghazi were a spontaneous reaction to that Internet video?
The American people knew from day one that it was no accident that this attack was carried out on September 11th.
So why did it take eight days for your administration to acknowledge what the American people knew from day one? This was a terrorist attack.
Osama bin Laden might be dead but al Qaeda is alive and raising their flag in place of ours.
If I am elected President, you won't see me flying to Vegas for a fundraiser. Because when it comes to national security, the President can't stay in Vegas.
Statements such as this would place President Obama on the defensive and put his thin-skinned disposition on full display. The American electorate has been willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt because of his "likability." But if Obama comes off as a thin-skinned dilettante against Romney, then he won't be so likable.
I am not saying that Obama is a shrinking violet. On the contrary, he plays for keeps and has moved heaven and earth to make Romney unacceptable and will continue to do so during the debates. Obama will no doubt remind everyone that Romney is a multi-millionaire who paid only 14% in taxes on his earnings and will try his best to say he is George W. Bush's long-lost cousin.
Of course, there are also Romney's 47% comments. When Obama mentions 47% (and he most surely will), Romney should respond with a number of his own. In fact, he should respond with two numbers:
President Obama can say 47% until he is blue in the face. But let me give you two numbers -- three and one. That would be three years and one term. Shortly after the President took office, he said, "If I don't have this done in three years, there's going to be a one-term proposition."
Well, it's now been nearly four years and what does President Obama have to show for it? He brought us a stimulus that didn't stimulate anything, a $16 trillion deficit and climbing, an unemployment rate above 8% and economic growth rate of 1.3%.
President Obama can say he inherited a terrible economy all he wants. Former President Clinton can say that this was the best President Obama could do under the circumstances. Well, if this is the best that President Obama can do, then that's not good enough. If President Obama were working for me and said to me that this was the best he could do, I would fire him on the spot. The American people deserve better than President Obama's best.
The presidency is not an entitlement. A second term has to be earned. The American people hired President Obama to do a job and if he hasn't done it by now then another four years isn't going to change anything.
Now it can be argued that presidential debates seldom shape the outcome of the election. But surely Romney stands a better chance of making a favorable impression with the American public and winning the White House if he outperforms Obama in the debates. While it would be nice if Mitt Romney had a "there you go again" moment tonight, it isn't absolutely necessary. If Romney can stay on the offensive, keep Obama off his game (and maybe even make him lose his cool) while at the same time come off as a reasonable, viable alternative in October, then he has a fighting chance in November.