Hempstead, N.Y. — Before that memorable Denver showdown with President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney spent hours holding mock debates. He’d put on a dark suit, stand at a lectern in a hotel ballroom, and play-act with Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who has been impersonating Democratic nominees in debate preparation since the Clinton years. To the surprise of Romney insiders, those sessions were inspired. Romney was good, and he thoroughly enjoyed the 90-minute run-throughs. Instead of merely reviewing material with his aides, as he did before the Republican-primary debates, Romney had a live foil, and it made all the difference. Ever since those initial mock debates in early September, Portman has been at Romney’s side, and since Saturday they’ve been at a hotel ballroom near Boston rehearsing for tonight’s debate.
Romney has adapted aspects of his practice routine to fit the town-hall format. The lecterns are gone, and Romney and his advisers have paid closer attention to the little things, such as his posture and his use of the space. They’ve discussed how he should walk around the carpeted stage, and how he’ll interact with the crowd. His advisers want him to be at ease, as he was in Denver, but they want him to be cautious. Town halls can be unpredictable, and they have never been Romney’s best setting. But the Romney team hasn’t spent too much time thinking about the audience. There is only so much you can do to prepare for about 80 undecided Long Islanders. Their real focus has been on President Obama. They expect him to be aggressive, and they want Romney to be ready.
Twelve years ago, Portman was in the room when George W. Bush was preparing for his town-hall debate with Vice President Al Gore. Portman spent weeks studying tapes of Gore, and during the final mock debate at the governor’s mansion in Texas, he left his stool and walked over to Bush, standing “threateningly close to him,” as Romney strategist Stuart Stevens recalls in The Big Enchilada, his campaign memoir. Bush was amused by Portman’s maneuver and kissed him on the head. “He’s going to try and intimidate you,” Portman warned Bush. “Clinton did it to Dole.” A few days later, Gore did just that, invading Bush’s space. Thanks to Portman, Bush was ready for Gore’s tough-guy tactic, and he famously gave the veep a flippant nod to shoo him away.
Romney aides say Portman has warned Romney in a similar fashion this past week. Portman expects the president, under pressure to impress, to try to overshadow Romney. He could walk over and challenge Romney, or he could interrupt, Biden-style. If he does, Romney will keep his cool, push back, and turn the discussion back to the Obama record. The less time devoted to theatrics, the better Romney will fare. He soared in Denver by overwhelming the president with data, by making the better case. If he can do that again at Hofstra University, he will succeed. Awkward questions from the audience, moderator problems, Obama’s style — Romney’s circle sees these as factors, but secondary issues. To appeal to swing voters who are just tuning in, Romney must dominate on the substance. Obama may be smooth, but Romney can’t let him sound sharper.
The latest round of debate prep has reflected this strategy. Compared with the more lively mock debates before Denver, the pre-Hofstra sessions have been low-key affairs. Arguments and talking points are recited, and Portman presents a variety of scenarios. There hasn’t been a mock audience peppering Romney with questions. From time to time, an aide will play the part of a town-hall attendee and ask a question, but it’s not the main part of the workday. It’s mostly a policy workshop, with some image-consulting on the side. The month-long prep before Denver was more of a marathon, and now, in the midst of debate season, it’s about polishing Romney’s presentation and keeping him rested and relaxed.
Romney isn’t bringing in new faces, either. At this point in the campaign, he’s sticking with his tight-knit cadre of advisers. Along with Portman, they are the only ones interacting with him on a daily basis as he prepares for debates. The group in the room includes Stevens, foreign-policy guru Dan Senor, policy director Lanhee Chen, campaign manager Matt Rhoades, and Romney’s former Bain Capital partner Bob White. Senior advisers Ed Gillespie, Eric Fehrnstrom, Beth Myers, Peter Flaherty, and Russ Schriefer are there, too. Most of the group has been with Romney for a decade, going back to his days as Massachusetts’s governor. They know him, and he trusts them. They don’t spend a lot of time talking about Romney’s posture or his smile, but when they do, he listens.
Romney spent much of last week on the trail in Ohio, and he returned to his home in Belmont, Mass., over the weekend. The campaign had a ballroom ready at a nearby Marriott hotel. The Romney group spent a few days there quietly ensconced, with breaks for church services and light meals. Now, they’re here on the Hofstra campus. They say Romney is going to be the same guy he was in Denver: assured, upbeat, and presidential. He was all of those things during September’s prep sessions, and during the recent Boston-area practices. If Romney can navigate tonight’s format, they hope for a repeat performance.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.