Candidates have big task at debates

Posted on Oct. 2, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON — In this week’s debate, Mitt Romney has too much to do. President Obama has a great deal to lose. Romney’s is the most difficult position. Obama’s is the most dangerous.

Romney needs to use the Denver encounter to reverse the slide he has found himself in since the party conventions. While Republican partisans claim that many of the public polls survey too many Democrats and are thus casting Romney as further behind than he is, the behavior of the Romney campaign suggests it does not believe this. Many of its recent strategic moves have smacked of damage control and appear to reflect an understanding that if the campaign stays on its current trajectory, Obama will prevail.

The most dramatic evidence was the decision to air a 60-second spot touting Romney’s compassion, clearly an effort to counter the disastrous impact of the leaked video showing the Republican nominee writing off 47 percent of the electorate. The former Massachusetts governor’s private words only reinforced months of advertising by Obama and allied groups portraying Romney as a wealthy, out-of-touch champion of the interests of the very rich. Recent polling in swing states has shown that this attack has stuck.

Most striking of all, a campaign that has been relentless in assailing Obama abandoned this approach for a moment in the compassion ad by having Romney declare that “President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families.” Challengers are in a weak position when they have to hug their opponent for validation.

That’s why the debate is a strategic conundrum for Romney. On the one hand, he has to use it to change his image, particularly among women and the blue-collar white voters he needs to counter Obama’s overwhelming margins among African-Americans and Latinos. This sort of repair work takes debate time and energy away from Romney’s primary task, which is to put Obama on his heels about his record.

Romney will have to pull off this two-step at a moment when his campaign has been forced into a course correction. The polls suggest Romney is losing what he once thought were his biggest assets against Obama: Swing-state voters, albeit narrowly, now favor Obama as a future steward of the economy and are in a somewhat better mood about its condition.

Paradoxically, Obama’s advantages over Romney create the president’s biggest debate challenge. He does not want to take great risks because he doesn’t have to. Above all, he wants to avoid a major blunder that would dominate the post-debate news and replace Romney’s problems and mistakes as the principal elements in the media’s narrative.

And while guarding against any hint of passivity, Obama will have to avoid intimations of arrogance or overconfidence. Al Gore marred an otherwise strong night with his rather dismissive sighs during a 2000 debate with George W. Bush. If a comparable moment from Obama is what Romney will hope for from the debate, Obama’s aspiration is for a showdown in which he calmly, perhaps amiably, maintains focus on the subjects that have consistently given Romney trouble.

One of the shortcomings of the contemporary media environment is that while debates are supposed to be occasions when candidates thrash out matters of consequence thoughtfully and in detail, the outcomes are often judged by snippets that are more about personal character than issues or problems. Journalists are forever in search of “defining moments” and “game-changers.”

By this standard, Romney very much needs that game-changer. Obama can live quite happily without one.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com.

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