Bill Whalen

Talk of the Town (Hall)

By my count, Mitt Romney slogged through a good dozen Republican primary debates that the media deemed “crucial”, “critical”, “pivotal” or “defining”.

Few, in fact, were. While the debates did help sort out an over-crowded GOP field (Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, never recovering from an “oops” moment), Romney earned his party’s nomination through a combination of sound financial planning, solid infrastructure and steely perseverance. Yes, it helped that he shined on the debate stage when necessary, but Romney’s eventual (some would say inevitable) triumph was more dependent upon game-planning than debate knockouts.

The same standard doesn’t apply to the general election, where one debate turned out to be a game-changer.

Figure it thus: Romney entered the first presidential debate in Denver trailing President Obama, 50%-45%, in Gallup’s pre-debate survey of registered voters. Six days after that Oct. 3 debate, Gallup’s initial likely-voter survey had Romney ahead, 49%-47% (the latest RCP Average: Romney 47.4%, Obama 47.3%).

Other evidence of that first debate’s impact on the election: Florida has swung back into Romney’s column; Colorado suddenly is more competitive for the GOP challenger; crowds turning out to see Romney are showing an enthusiasm that wasn’t evident pre-Denver.

Then there’s the Electoral College. According to the Examiner’s tally, what had been a 294-244 Obama lead (270 needed to win) now stands at 271-261. Switch Ohio’s 18 electoral votes to Romney’s column and the Oval Office gets a makeover in 2013.

So the second presidential debate does indeed seem “make or break” . . . not for an ascendant Romney but instead for a surprisingly fragile Barack Obama.

How worried is the President? He cleared his schedule for six days of debate preparation – double the time he spent studying for his first encounter with Romney. That included three days at a 54-hole golf resort in Virginia where, surprise of surprises, he didn’t go duffing – a temptation he’s rarely resisted during his first term.

So will we see a feistier, more aggressive Obama in the second debate? Count on feisty, as in assertive. But don’t count on aggressiveness. Remember, Republicans floated the idea of getting in the presidential grill in Romney-Obama I. That turned out to be a head fake – and it succeeding in faking out the President.

Besides, townhall-style debates aren’t suited to aggressive manners. The goal is to connect with the average citizen (well, as “average” as voters are in American college towns). That doesn’t bode well for candidates more interested in deriding their opponent than scoring empathetic points, though it has made for some outré moments during the 20 years that presidential candidates have met this way.

So what else to look for, beyond the President’s demeanor?

  • Romney’s Connectivity. The Republican contender has participated in dozens of town-hall events over the course of the 2012 campaign, while Obama’s been in just one in the past nine months.  As in Denver, there’s a presidential rust factor. That said, I’d be shocked if at least one questioner doesn’t try to trip him up along the lines of what got the better of President Bush in 1992: “how has the national debt personally affected [you]?” Watch for Obama to remind the audience that he and the First Lady wife came from humble roots – a not-so-subtle dig at Romney’s family’s wealth that he’s frequently invoked on the campaign trail. Romney showed in Denver that he can look and act presidential. At Hofstra, he gets to prove if he can be personable as well.
  • Candy’s Not So Sweet. It wouldn’t be a presidential debate without a complaint about the evening’s moderate – this time, CNN’s Candy Crowley. The gripe: her promise to play an active role in the debate, something neither campaign wants.  Back in 2008, this ended up being a criticism of that year’s town-moderator, Tom Brokaw: he redirected the audiences questions and asked too many of his own – in effect, hijacking the debate. The 2008 presidential town hall was held in Nashville – live from the Town of Brokaw. Here’s a suggestion for a Commission on Presidential Debates that’s long on Washington insiders: start looking for less grabby moderators who live (and think) outside the Beltway.
  • The Bounce Effect. Ok, this is more germane to the hours and days after the debate: will the second debate produce another large ripple effect? Keep in mind that the first head-to-head in Denver: (a) reversed Romney’s fortunes; (b) forced Obama himself to admit he had “a bad night”; (c) freaked out the left; (d) reinvigorated the right; (e) changed the election’s Obama’s-hope/Romney’s-hopeless media narrative. That’s a lot of damage for just 90 minutes of television, but entirely possible if either candidate is exceptionally strong – or astonishingly weak.
  • Unsound on Long Island. Here are three things guaranteed to be off the table – and off the stage – on Tuesday night. There won’t be a presidential repeat of Joe Biden’s theatrics. Nor will Romney be as passive and deferential as his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, was in the face of said clowning. Finally, watch and see if either gentleman . . . is sporting a wristwatch. In the first presidential town-hall debate, back in 1992, it was a glance in his watch’s direction that signaled an end to George H.W. Bush’s presidency (happens here at the 1:15 mark, as Ross Perot goes on about government, school-busing and chickens in a bathtub).

Unless he turns in a better performance in this, the second of three presidential debates, then time may be running out on this presidency as well.

Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter @hooverwhalen.

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