By Mark Samburg
Mr. Romney, you need to win this first debate — badly. You’ve got to make up ground, and you’ve got to do it against a familiar incumbent. It’ll be tough, but not impossible. The good news is that there are rules to presidential debates, and no replacement refs to mess them up. Here’s how to use those rules to win the first debate on tonight.
Start off right. When you shake hands with President Obama in Denver, offer an audible “it’s nice to meet you, Mr. President.” As far as I can tell, you and Obama have never met, and this greeting not only allows you to distance yourself from the administration right off the bat, but it also gives you the chance to flash some human warmth, something your campaign desperately needs. If Obama’s not expecting anything past the politician’s standard “good to see you,” you may get lucky and catch him in a bit of a stumble. There’s a wide gap between well-prepped or teleprompted Obama and extemporaneous Obama.
Identify yourself. After you’ve introduced yourself to the president, it’s time to introduce yourself to the voters. You’ve changed your message quite a bit recently — with reason, certainly, but dodging gaffes of your own making doesn’t overcome the fact that voters don’t know much more about you than “He’s not-Obama.” It’s time to tell us about Mitt Romney. As crazy as this sounds, you have to forget that the president is standing six feet away. Don’t just tell us about yourself in terms of Obama, tell us your story, your goals, your ideas. This is not to say you shouldn’t challenge the president and his record — that’s essential. But if you spend the middle third of the debate discussing yourself affirmatively, without constant comparison to the past four years, you’ll see a jump in the polls.
Don’t bother with policy details. It takes a Bill Clinton to make voters care about those minutiae, and to paraphrase the great Lloyd Bentsen, governor, you’re no Bill Clinton. Don’t worry, though — neither is Obama. By all means, talk policy. But if you discuss detailed technical policy elements, you’ll lose voters’ attention and end up in a back-and-forth of unsupported assertions and predictions. We’ve seen those back-and-forths before (the ’08 debates come to mind), and they don’t win undecided voters for anyone. Stalemating undecideds is a winning strategy for Obama right now, but you need those voters in your camp.
If Obama talks about minutiae, make your responses direct explanations of your alternatives without lots of technical detail. In the debates, when you’re discussing policy, the name of the game is explaining what your policies will do for the average voter, not arguing about technical implementation.
Give us a moment we’ll remember. Every politician has a few defining moments, and right now, yours don’t look so good. It’s time to change that. I doubt you’ve got a zinger for the ages in you, but surely you can muster up something that we’ll still be talking about by Election Day. If it’s going to be a personal crack about Obama, though, it had better be, in the parlance of your old state, Massachusetts, wicked funny. Clever jabs at opposing candidates (“where’s the beef?”) get remembered favorably. Mean-spirited remarks lose voters.
A piece of advice for you and President Obama. You’re on that stage because you’ve been nominated by your party to run for the presidency of the United States. There is only one greater honor in the world, and that’s to win this election. Act like it. Don’t waste this opportunity on nonsense and squabbling. Drop the semi-honest talking points, the attacks and the smoke screens, and get down to what actually matters.
Tell Americans why you deserve to lead our country. Tell us where you believe we should be, and how you’re going to get us there. Give us a reason to place our faith in that vision, and in your leadership to get us there. If either you or President Obama takes this advice and elevates his half of the debates to a contest of leadership, ideas and goals, that candidate is going to win the debates, and probably the election with them. He’ll deserve it.
Mark Samburg of Essex, Conn., is a contributing editor of the Presidential Debate Blog (www.PresidentialDebateBlog.com). He wrote this for The Hartford Courant. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.