Mitt’s Debate Challenge

TPM Reader JL looks at Mitt’s challenge going into Wednesday nights debate …

I fear (well, hope, actually) that Mitt’s folks are misreading the main lesson of presidential debates. I think the lesson is not that it’s all about zingers. I think the lesson is that it’s all about demeanor. Think about Al Gore’s sigh, Richard Nixon’s sweaty face and Bush the elder’s not-so-furtive glances at his watch.

And when it comes to demeanor, Romney has some cause for concern. He tends to come across as smug and over-polished (physically, not verbally) and in my view he should be at least as concerned about that as he is about landing zingers. In fact, if he goes overboard on the zingers, he may exacerbate the demeanor problem and create sympathy for Obama. Remember, the typical persuadable voter likes Obama more than she or he likes the Mittster.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of those situations where Romney is declared the winner by the pundits on the night of the debate, but ends up as the loser once voter reaction is examined.

I think this is quite on point. But I’d expand on the point in this way.

Romney really does need to significantly upset the applecart. He needs some pivot. But it’s hard to see how to do that without really coming after Obama or trying to set the stage for something dramatic. That’s where you get the talk about “zingers”, though my own sense is that that’s Team Romney playing mind games. But that’s the kind of behavior that’s more likely to make mitt look like a jerk.

This is what mitt did with Rick Perry. And it worked inasmuch as perry choked in a big way and basically disqualified himself for the presidency. So the fact that it made Romney look like a bit of bully and a jerk was a totally acceptable bargain, though I’m sure it contributed to his poor national favorability ratings which continue till today.

What’s more, Obama is less vulnerable to that kind of attack. He’s not a great debater. He’s a fine debater but not a great one. But it’s highly unlikely he’s going to have a brain freeze or not be familiar with some major federal issue. Also, a debate is different for a challenger. For the challenger you’re looking for some guide into what the person would be like as President. That’s why awkward moments can cause real problems. But Obama has been president for almost four years. Everybody has a decent sense — for better or worse — of how he does the job.

I think it’s quite possible Romney will have a good debate, given the nature of the expectations and the natural tendency for reporters to want a new story. But if the standard is his ability to fundamentally change the dynamic of the race that’s much more challenging. Because to do that he needs to be aggressive and in Obama’s face — the sort of stuff that’s just as likely to confirm the negative sense of him as arrogant, lacking empathy and contrived.