Politics & Policy

Ringside with Romney

Five things to watch at the first debate

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.


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.

Romney’s five-point economic-growth plan will surely be mentioned, as will his plan to cut taxes by 20 percent (which will likely be a target for attack by the president). The debt will also be a key part of his case, if his recent speeches are any indication. At an Ohio rally, Romney blamed the president for the increased deficit and used numbers to make his case. “When he came into office, there was just over $10 trillion in debt. Now there is over $16 trillion in debt,” Romney said. “If he were reelected, I can assure you it will be almost $20 trillion in debt.”

As a graduate of Harvard Business School who relishes any opportunity to explain a complex problem on a whiteboard, Romney is inclined to use numbers to demonstrate why his position is better. On a debate stage with an incumbent president, there will be no whiteboard, but there will be select opportunities for Romney to shame the president by using economic and fiscal data as weapons. Romney’s strength on statistics, his aides say, should come in handy if the president tries to dodge his record.


His father, George Romney; his wife, Ann; and his five sons all may come up on Wednesday. Whereas statistics and policy are two areas where Romney is most comfortable, personal stories have often been hard for him to articulate. Romney’s advisers don’t seem to be pushing him to do a lot with personal anecdotes, but look for Romney to intersperse a few carefully selected stories.

As I mentioned earlier, Romney’s campaign sees the first debate as more than a contest to win on points. They want to introduce Romney to the country. They saw Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention as part one of that project and the three presidential debates as the final chapter. Romney’s wife, Ann, stands the best chance of being mentioned at least once, but don’t count out his father, aides say, since Romney likes to discuss his father, the former head of American Motors, when talking about business and innovation.

Indeed, the most important anecdotes, aides say, may not even be family stories, but memories from his days at Bain Capital. Bain Capital’s rise from an offshoot of a consulting firm to a major power in the private-equity world is something Romney takes prides in, and his advisers hope that the candidate defines those years on his own terms.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.


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