Wednesday night's presidential debate is Mitt Romney's best chance to demonstrate the clear choice America will have to make on November 6. The television audience will be huge, maybe as many as 50 million people.
Lagging in the polls, the debate won't be Romney's last opportunity to win the election, but -- unlike past elections in which most debates had little effect -- this debate will either give Romney the momentum he needs to overtake Obama or it will result in Romney being so desperate to score a win in the following two debates that the pressure will produce even worse results.
Romney, by all reports, is taking the debate very seriously. Practicing against Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), maybe practicing his key attack lines with staff, Romney is going to be prepared. Obama is also preparing despite what the media are doing to lower expectations. He's too busy to practice, we're told, because he's too busy running the nation and the world to take even a little time to prepare for Romney.
Nonsense. Obama isn't too busy to skip meetings with heads of state -- most conspicuously evading a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu -- to take time to dish with the girls on The View. He is spending more time and energy on the campaign than on anything else, so he's certainly spending whatever time he and his handlers think he needs to get ready for Wednesday night.
When they take the stage Wednesday night, both men will be thoroughly prepared. They will have a strategy in mind, well-practiced zingers their speechwriters have come up with. Most importantly, each will bring to the stage his own vulnerabilities and strengths.
For Obama, his biggest weaknesses are his record and his thin-skinned personality. He's unable to take criticism and is notoriously self-indulgent. He blames congressional Republicans for everything that's wrong, and never takes responsibility for anything that goes wrong. (Al Qaeda is still alive, and GM is still dying. ) In 2010, as several others have reported, Obama said, "Let's face it: this has been the toughest year and a half since any year and a half since the 1930s." Really? Don't the years 1941-1945 stack up to 2009-2010?
For Romney, his biggest weaknesses are his supposedly cold personality and his political reflexes. When Obama led with his chin -- as he did in ordering his administration not to deport many illegal aliens -- Romney acquiesced. When Obama's Labor Department was considering a ban on kids working on their parents' farms for pay, Romney was silent. His reflexes need on the attack and sharper in the debate.
Romney's campaign has spent too much time on the defensive. Obama's campaign -- and his media allies -- have made sure of that by promoting Romney's gaffes. The "47%" remark was inept, but the media made it a huge story and it's now the feature of an Obama campaign ad. It will certainly come up in the debate, either from moderator Jim Lehrer or from Obama.
You can't win a campaign by defending yourself. As in football, the best defense is a good offense. On Wednesday night, Romney needs to go on the attack and not worry about how likeable he may seem to the liberal media. But Obama and his advisors know that. To counter it, Obama will do his best to turn the debate away from his record and put Romney on the defensive. The success or failure of that strategy will determine each candidate's success on Wednesday night.
We've already seen hints on how Obama will try to put Romney on his back foot. Four days ago, the New York Times' Andrew Rosenthal wrote about a draft memo written by Romney advisors last year that denounced Obama's executive order on terrorist interrogation which limited intelligence agents to techniques in the Army Field Manual. Last December, Romney said he supported the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used so effectively by the CIA under George Bush. Romney has said he favored the return of waterboarding which, under the change to U.S. law authored by Sen. John McCain, is almost certainly illegal. What other Romney campaign gaffes -- the "etch as sketch" remark by a Romney staffer? -- will Obama pull out in the debate?
Romney's biggest vulnerability is, obviously, on health care. Romneycare was the progenitor of Obamacare, complete with its individual mandate.
Romney can expect Obama to hammer the fact that Romney's Massachusetts staff had helped draft Obamacare. If Romney is put on the defensive -- and if his desire to appear likeable overcomes his need to strike back -- he will lose the debate. But that need not happen. If Romney goes on the attack from the beginning, and doesn't retreat, Obama's thin-skinned personality can win the debate for Romney.
Aside from Romneycare, Obama's vulnerabilities are more important, and more numerous, than Romney's. Begin with his arrogance.
Obama's big promise of 2008 was that he was not party partisan and would create a new tone of cooperation in Washington. That promise, among so many others Obama made, was utterly false. When he first met with the House Republican Caucus in 2009, congressmen asked him if he'd compromise on big issues such as the idea of a government stimulus for the economy and on healthcare. His answer was, "I won." Obama left no room for compromise, and there was none on the stimulus, on Obamacare and so much more. Partisanship has never been so adamant and complete as it has been under Obama.
If Romney challenges Obama on this ideological partisanship, he can get under Obama's thin skin. He can do that less effectively on other issues, because Romney has compromised his positions to match Obama's.
On Afghanistan, Romney's policy is essentially the same as Obama's. On Iran, though Romney is much closer to Israel than Obama will ever be, Romney hasn't yet come out for a clear "red line" beyond which Iran cannot go in pursuit of nuclear weapons. If Romney comes out clearly on the "red line" issue -- paralleling what Netanyahu said to the UN last week -- he can put Obama on the defensive and gain ground.
Romney should begin the debate by stating the contrast between conservative beliefs and Obama's liberalism, and stick to them throughout the debate. Obama's policies, his speeches and his actions -- on domestic issues and foreign policy -- are all consistent with radical liberal ideology. The only things Obama has grown are the government and our national debt. Obama has shrunk America from a superpower to an also-ran unable to affect everything from the results of the so-called "Arab spring" to the not-so-trivial revived dispute between England and Argentina over the Falkland Islands (on which Obama has declared American neutrality). Romney needs to hang the liberal label on Obama and come back to it in every statement he makes in the debate. The media will hate it, but the voters will love it.
Romney should make it a "conservative vs. liberal" debate. On the economy, Romney has good conservative points to make on Social Security, the failed stimulus, and on Obama's new "economic patriotism" theme.
Obama is running an ad promising one million new manufacturing jobs, 100,000 more math and science teachers, to cut college tuition in half, and to expand American energy access. But how will there be one million new jobs unless companies can create them in an environment that encourages them rather than punishing them with Obama's taxation and regulation? How will we get more American energy when Obama's administration is forcing coal-fired electric plants to close? How will the economy grow while Obama is leading us off a fiscal cliff in January? Huge tax increases -- including the imposition of the Obamacare taxes -- are coming and are sure to push the economy down into another deep recession.
Romney has run as a technocrat, someone who has the expertise and experience to reverse the economy's slide. But the last guy to say that the race wasn't about ideology but rather about competence was Mike Dukakis. It's not too late for Romney to make this an ideological race, but that chance won't appear again after Wednesday night.