Ringside with Romney
Five things to watch at the first debate


Robert Costa


During prep sessions in rural Vermont, Ohio senator Rob Portman played the role of Obama, often too well according to Romney. On the trail, Romney has joked about Portman’s uncanny portrayal of the president and said that the senator knows how to get under his skin. Portman’s pushiness, of course, had a purpose.

Sources familiar with the prep say that part of Portman’s mission during the mock debates was to pry out elements of Romney’s personality in order to see what would translate well on national television and what should be muted. During the primary debates, Romney was frequently testy when challenged, and during heated moments he would sometimes arbitrarily switch between seeming belligerent and quietly tense.

That needed to be fixed. As a former Bain Capital executive, Romney is at ease during showdowns and has always held his own in a group setting, be it at a Republican-primary debate or in a boardroom. Nevertheless, his advisers have been nervous about how Romney’s intermittent anger would play in a one-on-one debate with Obama. They’ve urged Romney to be more confident in his answers but less aggressive in pushing Obama on minor points and in quarrelling with the moderator.

A senior Romney adviser says politicos should watch for how Romney “targets” his pugnacity during the Denver debate. If the president criticizes Romney’s Bain Capital experience, his tax returns, or other issues that have flustered him in the past, the campaign would like to see him offer clear and curt responses, but not go overboard. There is a sense among Romney’s circle that the media want to cast Romney as either too cool or too hot, and it’s up to the candidate to make sure he strikes the right tone.

During the 1992 presidential debates, President George H. W. Bush famously looked at his wristwatch as Bill Clinton spoke, and was ridiculed for seeming disengaged. Romney had a similar misstep during the primary when he made a playful $10,000 bet with Perry. Even Romney insiders say the Perry bet was an unforced error.

Romney’s team hopes that, beyond channeling his aggression, their man is disciplined on stage and avoids making any stray remarks or extemporaneous jokes. They’ve armed him with a bushel of zingers, sources say, and he’ll be ready with scripted lines on a variety of fronts.

The Perry bet hardly ruined Romney’s candidacy, but it created a week of headlines. At the time, there were many more debates to come, and his opponents were also making mistakes. On Wednesday, however, the stakes will be higher, and Romney’s advisers want him to be relaxed, but not spontaneous with his quips.

Romney, for his part, recently told ABC News that he would have to be careful and resist responding to every presidential taunt. “The challenge that I’ll have in the debate is that the president tends to, how shall I say it, to say things that aren’t true,” he said. “I’ve looked at prior debates. And in that kind of case, it’s difficult to say, ‘Well, am I going to spend my time correcting things that aren’t quite accurate? Or am I going to spend my time talking about the things that I want to talk about?’”

The Romney-Ryan campaign has been getting wonky this month, with Paul Ryan holding town-hall meetings and clicking through PowerPoint slides in swing states. Romney, a self-professed policy guy, also enjoys getting into the weeds on health care and economics. But his time will be limited in Denver, and part of the debate prep has revolved around picking and choosing which data points to employ.

Jobs numbers seem to be at the top of that list, and with Friday’s jobs report looming, look for Romney to go into detail about the scope of the recession. His aides believe that Romney is capable of painting a picture of the economy with numbers that sways voters, and they think his grasp of the fiscal situation could rattle the president, especially if the pair has time to debate specifics.