The summer siestas have concluded. The convention bounces have dissipated. The presidential race remains where it has been ever since May, when Mitt Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee, and when Barack Obama began hammering Romney on his wealth and his taxes. Here's the longstanding state of the race: A virtual tie nationwide, and mixed signals from the battleground states. We have achieved nothing over the last five months except an extended period of stasis, interrupted by gaffes and stumbles that have proven relatively meaningless.
What can break this race open? The only unique events left on the schedule are the four debates — three between Obama and Romney, and one between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. The latter debate will provide amusement, but probably won't drive voter choices; people vote for the top of the ticket, not for the bottom. That makes the debates between the two nominees the best opportunity for each side to close the deal, and the first of those debates — on Wednesday night in Denver — will probably be the most critical.
Both campaigns have worked at setting expectations for the debates, but in tellingly different ways. Team Obama spent the last week downplaying Obama's debating and rhetorical skills, a rather eye-opening change of pace from the usual declarations of Obama's oratorical mastery. They apparently feel that they don't need to stoke pre-debate enthusiasm, and hope some sandbagging to set the expectation bar low for a president who usually gets lavish media praise for his speeches works better as a long-term strategy.
Team Romney, on the other hand, raised expectations for Romney's performance. Romney surrogate Chris Christie predicted a big victory for the Republican nominee, largely because he'll be free to talk directly to the voters rather than through the filter of the media. "What he's going to be doing on Wednesday night is not going to be filtered by anybody," Christie told CBS' Bob Schieffer this weekend on Face the Nation. "He's going to come in Wednesday night, he's going to lay out his vision for America, he's going to contrast what his view is and what the president's record is, and the president's view for the future, and this whole race is going to turn upside down come Thursday morning." If Team Romney worried about overplaying expectations, Gov. Christie didn't get the memo.
This was no mistake, though. The Romney campaign has had to soothe fears among Republicans of a campaign sliding backward in the election fight. Even though national polls show the race a dead heat, some panic has begun to creep into the Right over the lack of Romney momentum thus far. Team Romney needs to stoke some enthusiasm now to get their supporters to focus on the debates as the real hinge of the election. That is a bigger worry for the campaign than sandbagging the expectations game.
Besides, the conventional wisdom in this case is probably right — Romney needs these debates more than Obama does, and he has to outperform Obama in order to shift the race's trajectory. He has to do what Christie predicts, and use the debates to pitch his message and his criticisms of Obama directly to voters, and over the heads of the media. In order to do that, Romney has to succeed at three different tasks in the debates, especially the first, where voters will get their first direct contrast between the two candidates.
1. Romney has to transcend the debate agenda. Successful candidates use questions as mere suggestions, while answering their own questions to drive a debate narrative. Both Obama and Romney will do this, but Republicans assume that media moderators will drive the debate into territory friendlier for Obama than Romney. Romney has to take control and drive the debate, not let the moderator keep him pinned on defense — and that's an entirely legitimate strategy for voters, too. As Romney is running against an incumbent president, the focus should be on Obama's performance and his plans for a second-term agenda.
2. Romney has to assert himself without looking overly aggressive. That's no easy feat. Al Gore lost the debate battle against George W. Bush by alternately looking too aggressive and then too impatient. Obama ended up prevailing over John McCain by projecting a collegial-if-not-friendly mien while dispensing with McCain's arguments. Lower-information voters have to see Romney as something other than the Thurston Howell caricature that Team Obama has painted, while still pressing Obama on his economic failures and lack of any clear second-term agenda. The tone used in his ad last week, in which he spoke directly into the camera for 60 seconds about the economy, would work well in this setting to reassure undecided voters that Romney will be a safe alternative to Obama.
3. Romney has to construct an overarching narrative of executive incompetence in the Obama White House. This first debate will focus on the economy, but Romney needs to draw on more issues than that to make his case. Obama will respond on the economic issues by claiming that the grave nature of the recession handicapped the recovery, and that his policies will eventually work to create jobs faster than population growth, a pace with which the Obama recovery has failed to keep up. Romney needs to use the economy to discuss the inept handling of consular security in Benghazi and the Arab Spring in general, as well as Operation Fast and Furious, to show that the entire administration has run off the rails. That will negate Obama's blame-Bush-and-Republicans defense for the economy, and strengthen Romney's case that Obama simply doesn't have the executive talent for his current position.
Romney has argued all along that America needs a proven turn-around artist with a track record of executive success. He needs to make that pitch in each of the three debates. The sale will most likely be made or lost in the first.