Less than five weeks to go before the election and now the presidential
debates are front and center. There will be lots of pressure on Mitt
Romney to do something during the debates — especially the first one
Wednesday — to somehow change the dynamic of this race, which now favors
President Barack Obama. The question is what will it be? And will it
help or backfire?
Historically, debates are seen as major moments in the presidential
election cycle. They go back to 1960 and the showdown between Democrat
John Kennedy and the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon.
Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup did not hurt him with those listening on
the radio. They gave him the edge. But Kennedy had the advantage with TV
viewers and the rest, as they say, is history.
A Little Debate History
In fact, largely because of Nixon, there were no debates between 1960
and 1976. Lyndon Johnson felt no need to give Barry Goldwater an equal
share of the national stage in 1964, and Nixon was the Republican
candidate in both 1968 and 1972, ergo no debates, thank you very much.
Jimmy Carter probably benefited from being on the same stage with
President Gerald Ford in 1976, though Ford’s blunder about “no Soviet
domination of Eastern Europe” is one of the classic debate bloopers of
Some political analysts say that the only debates that caused noticeable
shifts in public opinion that affected the outcome of the election came
in 1960 and 2000. That may be technically true, but I think you can also
make a case for the 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and
Republican Ronald Reagan. Reagan came into that debate with some voters
still wary that he was a war-mongering right-winger. When he came across
in the debate as genial and generally non-threatening, it really helped
him dethrone Carter because so many people were looking for an excuse to
vote against the incumbent president given the poor economy and the
anger and frustration associated with the Iran hostage crisis.
In more recent years, some of the more memorable debate moments came in
non-verbal form: President George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in 1992
while Bill Clinton and Ross Perot held the floor. Al Gore’s weird
sighing habit in 2000, which was apparently supposed to show
exasperation with his opponent, Texas Governor George W. Bush. Perhaps
strangest of all was Gore walking up to Bush as he spoke during one of
the debates, bringing a quizzical response from the Texas governor. It
made Mr. Bush seem normal and Mr. Gore, well, less so.
Mr. Romney would dearly love to change the trajectory of this race,
which right now is headed in the president’s direction. But how? Be more
aggressive? That carries enormous risks.
In the Republican Party primary elections, Mr. Romney was consistently
the best debater of the bunch. He could be effective on the attack. But
he could also come off at times as a little snooty and arrogant, like
the time he challenged Texas Governor Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet. Yeah,
Mitt, everybody’s got a spare $10,000 in cash lying around the house.
Whatcha want to bet on?
And President Obama can, at times, come across as a bit aloof and
professorial. If Mr. Romney can find a way to deflate him a bit in those
moments, he might be able to score points with voters.
The problem for the Romney campaign is that he’s behind in some many key
states with so little time left. He has to have something dramatic
happen to really change the momentum of the race.
fact, even some die-hard conservatives are clearly watching the polls
and getting a bit disillusioned. One woman I interviewed last week out
in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a bastion of conservative thought,
already has a plan in case Mr. Obama wins a second term. Her solution?
Impeach him, based, she says, on several federal laws he has already
All she has to do now is convince Republican congressional leaders. Of
course, they have other problems at the moment — like holding onto their
majority in the House of Representatives and trying to win the majority
away from Democrats in the Senate. Impeachment may have to wait.
Heading into the debate both parties have a major fear. The fear for
Democrats is that their supporters won’t show up in sufficient numbers
on election day, allowing Mr. Romney to win a low-turnout election. The
fear for Republicans is that Mr. Romney has already lost the election
and that his lackluster convention, coupled with his gaffe about writing
off 47 percent of Americans as dependent on government, have sealed his
fate. The debates, especially the first one, may be Mr. Romney’s last
and best hope for a game-changing moment in this year’s campaign.