US2012: Obama and Romney prepare for decisive second debate

By J Brooks Spector 15 October 2012

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are preparing for a potentially decisive confrontation on Tuesday evening. This time around, the “town meeting” will be refereed by CNN’s Candy Crowley and ordinary citizens will get to ask the questions of the two candidates on – well – pretty much anything they want to ask. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Dan Balz of The Washington Post put Tuesday night’s debate (early Wednesday morning in South Africa) between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney into perspective, observing that “Every week after Labour Day is touted as a critical week in presidential politics. The coming week may actually live up to that characterization.”

Obama and Romney will meet twice in eight days, first at Hofstra University and then next Monday in Florida. The debates, Balz said, should make it clear whether “the momentum that Romney picked up from the first debate in Denver has stalled or whether he continues to gain ground against the president.”

Obama has to pick up his game and build on vice presidential candidate Joe Biden’s combative, take-no-prisoners approach when he faced Republican challenger Paul Ryan in the one scheduled vice presidential debate last week. Romney, in his newest guise as a warm, people-first, middle-of-the-roader, faces the challenge of continuing to push hard against Obama without shucking that newest costume. The first encounter between the two ended with a significant majority (including the punditocracy), saying Romney had given Obama a hiding.

Obama campaign advisor Robert Gibbs told CNN’s State of the Union, “He knew when he walked off that stage, and he also knew as he watched the tape of that debate, that he has to be more energetic. I think you’ll see somebody who is very passionate about the choice that our country faces.” Meanwhile, Romney advisor Ed Gillespie countered on CNN that “The president can change his style, he can change his tactics, he can’t change his record and he can’t change his policies. And that’s what this election is about.”

Biden may have broken the Republican momentum with his strong, in-your-face performance that some argued had too much mugging, scowling, and smiling in it, while others gave a thumbs up for demonstrating a firm grasp of the issues and exposing Ryan for being a good student, but not yet a man who has gone beyond careful cramming of his study guides. Polling data gave their debate a split decision, but for Democrats at least, that has just barely stopped their downward momentum. As a result, many are saying this upcoming debate is make-or-break time for Obama. 

While Romney’s situation has gotten better in some states, Obama is still generally accorded the lead in the search for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. Election analysts continue to insist the Obama candidacy has more ways to corral the required number of electoral votes – one reason so much time and energy is being spent by both campaigns in Ohio and Florida. Ohio has been a part of any Republican path to electoral victory, well, since the party first contested for the presidency. Polls continue to note a significant, albeit not overwhelming, lead by Obama there. Meanwhile, Florida offers 29 electoral votes – or more than a tenth of those needed to win the whole thing.

The distinction this time around is that the moderator will be more of a traffic cop than all-knowing ref. Questions will come unvarnished, direct from a room full of (rather carefully vetted) just plain folks. Body language can take the heart right out of a candidate’s chances in such an encounter as much as well-prepared answers, as George HW Bush will recall from his fatal glance at his wristwatch during his town hall meeting in Richmond in 1992 against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Bush later said he was thinking, as he glanced down, “Only 10 more minutes of this crap,” when he sneaked a peek at his watch and straightened his tie on camera, but viewers seemed to have interpreted his fidgets as discomfort with the question and the questioner. 

Thus, even anodyne gestures “became freighted with deeper meaning,” said University of New Hampshire history professor Ellen Fitzpatrick. By contrast, Bill Clinton, oozing empathy out of every pore, captured the moment when he responded to that same questioner, saying, “Tell me how it’s affected you again.” 

“Clinton steps in and empathizes, empathizes, empathizes,” said University of Pennsylvania political scientist and presidential campaign specialist Kathleen Hall Jamieson. TKO Clinton.

(You can bet neither Obama nor Romney will be wearing a wristwatch they can look at, and someone will have straightened their neckties and carefully brushed their suits, just before the two men come on stage on Tuesday night.)

At this moment, Obama is doing his debate prep at a riverside resort near the historic colonial town of Williamsburg, Virginia, while Romney will do his practice sessions at his Belmont, Massachusetts, home. Once again, Senators John Kerry and Ron Portman are acting as the sparring partners for Obama and Romney respectively, only this time readers can be certain Kerry and the rest of the Obama team will be giving the president a much tougher workout than the one he danced through before the first debate.

Over in the Romney camp, they are probably trying hard to replicate everything they did the first time around – it worked, so don’t mess with it. The ringer, of course, is that while campaign staffs can pretty well game what questions a seasoned reporter like Martha Raddatz or Jim Lehrer will pose, it is a whole lot harder to predict what a room full of individual citizens will offer as questions. That said, the two campaigns are almost certainly practicing how best to pivot from almost anything asked to their favourite campaign themes so they can find their respective comfort zones and familiar cadences.

Watch for Romney to challenge Obama repeatedly (whenever a question opens the door) on the president’s presumed weakness on national security, with the killings in Benghazi, Libya, as item number one as evidence. Romney will also poke at the administration’s presumed inability to weave a cogent narrative about those events. 

While the stagnant economy as a weapon has been taken out of Romney’s hands somewhat by virtue of the drop of unemployment to 7.8%, watch Romney try to use the president’s shilly-shallying on China trade as a lead back to the continuing bleeding out of industrial jobs from America. Also watch out for a pitch – yet again – that the Obama administration is funnelling $713-billion from Medicare to Obamacare, despite the number of times this has been debunked by those now ubiquitous fact checkers. One thing Romney almost certainly will not do is defenestrate Big Bird again. He’s frightened the children enough already on that one.

Meanwhile, assuming he is sufficiently stoked for this one, Obama will take the fight to Romney over tax equity, the so-far-unexplained elements of the Romney tax and budget plans that continue to mystify most economists, and to point out the Romney bluster on foreign affairs is just so much overheated rhetoric and not in keeping with the realities of the world. Then look for a spirited defence of Medicare – as opposed to the Ryan/Romney voucher plan, an explanation yet again about that Medicare/Obamacare money, as well as an effort to compare the real impacts of his budgetary plans on the national debt and annual budgetary deficit. 

This will be in contrast to the Paul Ryan-authored budget plan that even its strongest defenders say will not generate a surplus until 2030. Also, watch for Obama to specify and personalize how the Ryan budget plans will decimate the kinds of programs people like – from student loans to small business help – or need, like air traffic control, national parks and the FBI.

Watch to see which candidate manages to make the most sense out of the fiscal cliff and budget sequester that is scheduled to kick in in early 2013 – and whether the defence budget is threatened most by a Republican House of Representatives or a Democratic president – and who is responsible for this fiasco.

Also, pay attention for some foreign affairs issues to be vividly disputed, despite the conventional wisdom that foreign policy is not the key to this election. Romney will again attempt to portray the president as toying with Israeli security in the form of appeasement towards Iranian nuclear weapons, his leadership weakness in aiding Syrian rebels, his continued holding of illusions about the nature of the Arab Spring two years on, and his failure to sort out a time table for Afghan withdrawal that is fully in accord with the presumed wisdom of the generals. 

By contrast, Obama will need to adopt a posture of wisdom, experience and understanding about the complexities of foreign policy, having dealt with it for four years. He will have to say, in effect, “tough talk is cheap, but tough talk and flag waving are dangerous. Let the experienced adults stay in charge.”

One real ringer might be a question or two about faith and religion – how do the candidates’ religious beliefs translate into actual public policy, or how do the candidates express their religious values in their work on a day-to-day basis? Americans like to see their leaders demonstrate a religious sensibility, even as they are less comfortable about public religious fervour in presidents. This time around, however, the lingering doubts about Obama’s religious background and the many in the American public who are still confused about Romney’s Mormon faith might be an opening into the heart of the candidates – or a major unplanned pitfall.

As in the past, this reporter will stir himself in the early hours of Wednesday morning, he will watch it live, and then he will let readers know how he scores it. DM

Read more:

  • “Debate preparation trumps 2012 campaigning Sunday,” on AP
  • “Tight Race, Big Debate Ahead With 3 Weeks to Go,” on Time
  • “Obama, Romney hunker down for debate prep,” on AP
  • “Obama, Romney face a truly crucial week,” on The Washington Post

Photo: President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney share a laugh at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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