Pollsters tell us that the presidential debates don't really have much of an effect on who wins the White House, but that's neither accurate nor, frankly, very much fun, says Robert Draper in GQ. In fact, "all sorts of things can happen — most of them bad — when two of the world's most insulated creatures are suddenly thrust into an oppressive atmosphere consisting of a desolate stage, grim-faced inquisitors, a stone-silent live audience, and an invisible American electorate monitoring every blink and stammer." Whoever comes out ahead, especially in the first debate, will probably win in November. That's great news for Mitt Romney, says surrogate Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey. Romney's "had a tough couple of weeks," but he'll nail Wednesday night's debate and "this whole race is going to turn upside down come Thursday morning." Here are six things Romney can do to make Christie's confident — and off-message, for a team that wants to lower expectations — prediction come true:
1. Romney needs a memorable zinger
Team Romney has come to believe that the debates are about creating "moments," and they've "equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August," say Peter Baker and Ashely Parker at The New York Times. That's exactly the right strategy, says Robert Shrum at The Daily Beast. And "Mitt can land a tough punch," as he showed in the GOP primary debates. I doubt Romney has "a zinger for the ages" in him, says Mark Samburg at the Hartford Courant, but he can surely "muster up something that we'll still be talking about by Election Day." If he takes a personal jab at President Obama, though, it had better be "wicked funny" or it will backfire.
2. He must force Obama to lose his cool
Obama is winning, so he'll want to play it safe, says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. Romney's job is to knock the president off-balance, and "that's not a role Romney has been comfortable with in past debates." That was true once, but Romney's "at his best when his back is to the wall," says Edward Klein at the New York Post. He'll attack just fine, but it's not clear he has "the skill to exploit Obama's reputation for being sensitive to criticism." This whole election may "come down to whether Romney can get under the president's skin with well-aimed barbs and crack Obama's composure."
3. He should fact-check the president
Romney and his allies have been telegraphing that he will use the debate "to turn himself into a one-man truth squad," painting Obama "as someone who can't be trusted to stick to the facts or keep his promises," says Politico's Kevin Robillard. That's the right idea, but it's not as easy as it sounds, says Karl Rove at The Wall Street Journal. Romney "can't take on the role of fact-checker-in-chief," but he "must call out the president" on his serial "untruths" without calling him a liar — "that's too harsh a word that would backfire." And remember, "a dash of humor is worth its weight in gold."
4. The best strategy is attack, attack, attack
"The first debate will be almost exclusively on the economy," says Eric Pianin at The Fiscal Times, and that gives Romney his best shot to hammer Obama on the deficit, unemployment, and his failure to "create a more harmonious atmosphere in Washington." Being negative "won't make him more likable," political analyst Larry Sabato tells The Fiscal Times, but that ship has sailed — "it is too late to re-engineer Mitt Romney." At this point, "his only real chance to break through in the debates is to be relentless in cataloging Obama's weaknesses and prosecuting his case." Turning this from a choice into a rejection of Obama "is the only conceivable way that he wins, barring divine intervention or an October surprise."
5. Romney should talk about himself and his plans
Challenging the president and his record is "essential," but it's not enough, says the Hartford Courant's Samburg. "It's time to tell us about Mitt Romney." This may sound "crazy," but Romney needs to "forget that the president is standing six feet away" and tell the voters his story, goals, and ideas. If he can spend the middle third of the debate talking about himself affirmatively, "without constant comparison to the past four years," Romney will "see a jump in the polls."
6. Suppress his own ticks
The truth is, neither Romney nor Obama are great debaters, says Alan Schroeder at the New York Daily News. Obama can ramble and come off as smug; Romney can come off as "whiny and self-entitled," and he's "not always at his best in situations that demand spontaneity." But he has to do more than stop himself from offering Obama a $10,000 bet. He needs to watch himself debate, and cut out his verbal ticks. For example, "there is the awkward, mechanical chuckle that Romney emits whenever he is asked an uncomfortable question — presumably his debate coaches have warned him to suppress that urge at all costs." As Al Gore's infamous sigh in 2000 shows, these things matter.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Mike Huckabee's head-scratching advice to Christian voters
- How Scotland's independence movement lost the vote and still won everything
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- The Tea Party has its own immigration problem: Cuba
- The American middle class is no longer safe from poverty — and that might be a good thing
- Adrian Peterson and our misguided debate about spanking
Subscribe to the Week