Ringside with Romney
Five things to watch at the first debate


Robert Costa

When Mitt Romney takes the stage on Wednesday at the University of Denver, he will undoubtedly be prepared. The question is whether he will execute. Romney advisers expect their candidate to be fluid and precise on the issues. They don’t expect him to make a major misstatement on Poland, as Gerald Ford did in 1976, or embarrassingly forget his talking points, as Rick Perry did during the Republican primary. Their chief concerns are the intangibles, such as body language and demeanor.

Romney’s advisers have a simple strategy: They want their candidate to balance his finely tuned arguments with personal warmth. Since Romney is a reserved man, his advisers acknowledge that it will be difficult for him to endear himself to the country, especially under the hot studio lights. But they consider it critical. “This is really about introducing him to the country,” a Romney adviser says. “It’s the largest audience he has ever had. Everybody’s watching.”

During prep sessions in Vermont this past month, Romney has worked tirelessly on the stylistic aspect of his presentation, and Romney’s advisers predict that the former Massachusetts governor will come across as both presidential and empathetic. Rather than fire off brusque retorts, as he often did during primary debates, Romney will take care “to speak in paragraphs about the economy,” a second aide says.

Romney confidants are eager to counteract his reputation for aloofness. They want Romney to forcefully elucidate how the president is disconnected from the unemployed. Romney is inclined to talk about his business experience, sources say, and he may share stories from the trail, especially anecdotes about the recession’s impact on families and small businesses.

But it won’t all be warm and fuzzy. That’s where the balance comes in, advisers say. When he has the opportunity to give a full response, look for him to speak directly to the camera, making his case. When the president knocks him, however, Romney won’t try to stay above the fray, and he’ll try to make sure that his answers are more than clinical prescriptions. Romney will never be as gregarious as Bill Clinton or a great communicator like Ronald Reagan, but his advisers think he can score if he is comfortable and assertive.

“You’ll see a little combativeness,” says former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a longtime Romney friend. “Remember, though, that there will be more to this debate than telling the president to stick a bumper sticker on his forehead. This is about getting the people who are watching to look at their televisions and say, ‘My gosh, that’s the guy this country needs to be president.’”

As Romney engages Obama, listen and watch for five things that matter to those who are close to the Republican nominee. According to Romney’s advisers and several Republican consultants, these are the five factors that will shape much of the debate and the ensuing media narrative.


During a conference call with reporters on Monday, Ed Gillespie and Kevin Madden, two senior Romney advisers, hinted that Romney would focus on the “choice” facing voters. Again and again they came back to this idea, rather than solely blasting the president’s competency. Romney wants to keep the discussion on big themes, Gillespie said, because when the debate is about the larger economic challenge facing the country, Romney excels.

Expect Romney to frame the election early on as a choice between “free enterprise” and a “stagnant” government-based economy, which is how Gillespie explained it. Undecided voters, Madden added, want to hear about vision more than politics, and Romney wants to be seen as the more presidential and serious candidate. “What are we going to do to make the case to them?” Madden asked. Romney, he said, is “prepared” to talk about the leaked Mother Jones video and other things, but he wants to fight Obama on the broader issue of the recession, which is where the campaign thinks the president is most vulnerable.

The Romney emphasis on “choice” reflects Boston’s latest strategy, which is based on the idea that while railing against Obama’s economic troubles is a must, it’s not enough to win. To win, Romney advisers say, the candidate needs to bounce from the referendum argument to his viability as an alternative. In essence, he needs to define the problems of the Obama years and point out that there is another option. That leaves some things on the cutting-room floor.

If Romney finds significant time to delve into this “choice” concept, he will have succeeded, at least in the eyes of his advisers. If he barely touches on it, and he seems to merely be playing the critic, that’ll be a sign that he was distracted from his campaign’s core message.