It is debate time for the general election in the 2012 Presidential campaign. As the two candidates prepare for their first debate, coming up shortly, both are likely mindful of the important impact these events can have on the decision making of voters. Mitt Romney enters with a significant advantage, after doing (what seems to have been) dozens of debates during the primary season. Meanwhile, other than in dress rehearsals, Obama has not been subjected to such in four years. Of the two, Romney comes across as naturally tougher than Obama and if you factor in the challenging primary process, he should be poised to roll.
Meanwhile, Obama enters the debates with the biggest vulnerabilities of any presidential candidate since the Great Depression. In addition to having a horribly stagnant economy to deal with, the US is taking a pounding, internationally, as the president continues to strike a conciliatory tone, in spite of abuse from parties throughout the Middle East. These debates will be particularly important to Obama. In fact, one can argue, that his political life is dependent on them. So what do Romney and Obama need to do to come across as winners? Having had prepared many candidates for debates over the years, I have four suggestions for each of them.
1. Act presidential. Obama is known for being cold as ice, and many look at this as a sign of leadership (cool under pressure). He will need to exploit this ability significantly to get the favor of voters. However, in addition to being cool, Obama is going to need to show some “righteous indignation,” be it over the way the US is being treated internationally or over Republican efforts to thwart the President’s agenda in Congress.
2. Focus on the intangibles. If Obama focuses on public policy, he will have a difficult time explaining the results. Taxes, regulations, liability, and more have exploded under Obama and have created economic devastation on every front. He is going to have to emphasize things that are hard to quantify — his sympathy, his “hands on” understanding (having had been in the job for four years), and other things that only an incumbent can enjoy.
3. Be the voice of experience. The saying, “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t know,” is one of the few strengths Obama brings to the table. He is going to have to make an argument that, after four years, “you know what you have” and Mitt Romney is “not safe” and “untested”. This is “no time” to introduce a new leader to deal with our economic and foreign policy crisis, he might argue, even if Obama is largely responsible for those situations.
4. Stick with consistency. Romney has a record of “flip-flopping” that is without comparison in US political history. Romney has been for bigger spending, and against it. He has been pro-choice and pro-life. He has distanced himself from Ronald Reagan by name, but has also tried to position himself as heir apparent. These are the same reasons Romney had such a difficult time getting the nomination in the first place. Now, many critics of Obama believe we “have not seen anything yet,” from the president. Once given another four years and not facing reelection again, he might become unleashed and take an already aggressive (and radical) agenda much farther and faster. But, still, we at least know something about how Obama governs. I think many voters are concerned about the surprises that could follow Romney.
1. Act presidential. This may be hard to do if you have never had the job before, but part of the burden placed on Romney is to make voters feel comfortable in having him in that position. He will have to make sure he remains unaffected by Obama’s attacks, he will need to heavily focus on issues, and convey to people that it makes sense for a man like him to be in the Oval Office.
2. Go on the attack. Romney needs to attack Obama on every front and make every question his own. Most policy questions from the panel should easily provide grounds for attack on the president, but if they do not, he needs to do it anyway. Unrelenting, Romney needs to attack every weakness in Obama’s foreign and domestic policies, and also include the President’s vulnerabilities when it comes to religious freedom issues. It is imperative, though, that he only attacks the policies and not thepersonality. Otherwise, Obama could position himself as a victim and voters love to support the underdog. Policy, not personality, that must be Romney’s mantra.
3. Dismiss attacks from the panel or Obama. Every attack on Romney needs to be turned around and place back on Obama. Even if there is an area of clear error on Romney’s part, he should briefly own it, state (quickly) how he will do things differently, and then go back to Obama in his focus. If Romney is disciplined and keeps this event entirely about Obama’s policies, the president will find it very difficult to win.
4. Be memorable. Romney cannot afford to be too “safe,” during the debates. The type of thing he did before the NAACP, telling that black audience he would be better for them than Obama, actually resonated. He needs to be strong and convey, without apology, a conservative agenda. Ronald Reagan said that conservatives should not make their case in soft, pastel colors, but in a very bold red, white, and blue. This is the mandate on Romney during the debates.
These debates will be among the most important in US political history, especially in light of the huge population that still calls itself “undecided.” For them, obviously the way the candidates come across is every bit as important as the positions they stand on.
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