When President Barack Obama faces off against Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Denver on Oct. 3 for the first of three presidential debates, Romney starts a new chapter where he must win two key debates. He must win the debates at hand and a debate seemingly raging within himself that’s picked up by voters.
Both candidates have been preparing big-time for the debates, with many analysts saying Romney has prepared more extensively than any presidential candidate in American history. He’ll face Obama, who must try not to lose ground and play defense. Obama must look presidential, answer and nail Romney on specifics, and not provide the GOP with a factual error or gaffe in a campaign that seems more about gaffes and media joy in covering them than serious substantive policy issues.
But if Obama walks a tightrope, Romney must steady the shaky one he’s been walking on.
Political scientist Samuel Poplin, author of the must-read “The Candidate: What it Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House,” has noted: “While a challenger’s presidential campaign can quickly adjust and adapt to shifting winds like a speedboat, an incumbent’s campaign behaves more like a battleship, maneuvering slowly and making very large waves.”
Romney’s problem is that since his non-helpful Republican convention, Obama’s campaign has seemed like the speedboat and Romney’s like the battleship. Or the cruise ship Titanic.
If Ann Romney said “Stop it” to Romney’s conservative Republican critics, it’s what they’ve been screeching at the Romney campaign as they watch its “Gong Show”-like performance. Romney may have once tied his dog Seamus to the roof of his car, but today, due to tepid polling numbers and a campaign that MUST be being run by Democratic moles, it’s Romney who’s in the political doghouse.
Romney’s task in the debate will be formidable because he will have to communicate a grasp of issues (he will) but also quickly make himself instantly likable (tougher). Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks calls Romney “the least popular candidate in history,” a technocratic “non-ideological person running in an extremely ideological age, and he’s faking it.” The Daily Beast’s John Avlon is even more blunt in trying to diagnose why Romney is so disliked.
Avlon notes that in presidential primaries Romney’s competitors personally disliked Romney, who they viewed as aloof and politically cold-blooded. Avlon sees voters as picking up some vibes:
“Mitt Romney approaches politics in a more transactional way. He wants to improve the country but he is fundamentally a salesman, and in this worldview, it would be illogical not to tailor sales to the needs of different audiences. Why would Mitt try to make the same pitch to a Massachusetts electorate as Republican primaries voters? It’s not personal; it’s business. This businesslike approach to politics also explains Mitt’s willingness to go negative.”
Avlon concludes what I’ve concluded in reading “The Real Romney” by Boston Globe investigative reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman: “Romney is a good man deep down. But his dislike of politics, his disregard of policy details, and his plain discomfort with average people ends up looking like a disdain for the democratic process, and that’s a problem if you want to be the president of all Americans.”
How ingrained is Romney’s attitude problem? Look no further than his response on CBS’ “60 Minutes” to Scott Pelley, unsuccessfully trying to get Romney to tell him what tax loopholes he’d close. Pelley finally said to Romney: “The devil’s in the details.” And Romney replied: “The devil’s in the details. The angel is the policy.” P.S.: Romney never gave Pelley the details.
Attention Mitt Romney: If you give answers like this in the debate, you’ll find the failure will be in the fudging, the error in the evasion, and the debate loss in the predictable non-answer.
No one likes someone who absolutely refuses to give a straight answer. And you have a big, fat problem with being liked.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.