So the first presidential debate is coming up. Most of the polls indicate that Romney needs a strong performance to cut into Obama’s (narrow) lead. So here are my thoughts on the pros and cons of what we can expect from Romney against Obama:
1. Romney isn’t as bad a speaker as he came off in his convention speech. He just made a bad strategic decision about how best to appeal to the public. If Romney comes with a real message (along the lines Ramesh Ponnuru outlined) and brings the heat on Obama’s proposed Medicare cuts (like Paul Ryan did on Friday), then Romney should come off better.
2. Romney was the most consistent debater of any of the Republicans who ran for president. He didn’t win every debate (Gingrich got the better of him in a couple), but Romney won a lot more than he lost. And when he focused on taking down his opponents, Romney always got the job done. Romney totally destroyed Perry in their exchanges. When it all came down to the Florida primary, Romney beat down Gingrich good. Romney ran rings around Santorum in the one debate where those two were the main focus. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that Gingrich would have been a stronger debate challenger against Obama. Obama would have cut the undisciplined and terribly compromised Gingrich into little pieces.
1. Romney is on his own – Romney’s debate record in the Republican primaries is a little less impressive than it seems (though still impressive.) The debates had a weird dynamic that favored Romney. Romney was the frontrunner and all the other candidates were trying to become the main Romney alternative. So almost every time a candidate emerged as a the Romney alternative, all of the other candidates would gang up on whoever had emerged as the main Romney alternative. So when Perry entered the race, it wasn’t just Romney that went after the Texas governor. You also had Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul help Romney out by directing most of their fire at Perry. It was really something. They were going after Perry like a pack of wild dogs. Then when Gingrich emerged (the first time, just before Iowa), you had Bachmann and Paul directing most of their fire at Gingrich. When Santorum had emerged as the last non-Romney standing, Ron Paul helped Romney out in the last Republican debate that mattered. The only non-Romney that wasn’t gang mangled in then debates was Herman Cain, but I think that is because everyone on the stage (including Herman Cain) recognized that Cain was a joke that had zero chance of lasting. About the only time when Romney took an opponent down with no help was in the Florida debate with Gingrich. The other candidates (Paul and Santorum) mostly stayed out of it, and Romney still took down Gingrich hard. Romney won’t have Michelle Bachmann to help him out against Obama.
2. Obama is a lot more likeable and rhetorically well prepared than any of the people Romney beat in the primaries. It isn’t close.
That doesn’t mean Romney can’t win the debate. Obama is neither Superman nor a bumbling wimp. He is a tough, pragmatic, ideological politician with a weak record and some major ideological weaknesses that his opponents have failed to exploit. I put the odds of Romney “winning” the first debate in the way that John Kerry won his first debate against George W. Bush at less than one in three, but not at zero.