In the year-long game of attrition that led to his nomination to the Republican presidential ticket, Mitt Romney participated in over 20 debates with his primary opponents. A look back at those debates demonstrates many of the things that will hold Romney in good stead during his debates with Barack Obama: his ability to construct lengthy yet coherent answers to questions, his disciplined repetition of talking points, and his delivery of practiced zingers, to name a few. One also sees a candidate with vulnerabilities, particularly his tendency to stumble when under attack and forced to improvise. Some of his worst mistakes—offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 to settle a quibble about what was in the book Romney wrote, or explaining how he told his landscaper, "you can't have any illegals working on our property. I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals"—came during those high-stress moments.
But Romney's greatest challenge may lie in appreciating the difference between the primary debates, at which he had so much practice, and a general election debate of a profoundly different type. As he no doubt understands, he has to be less of a partisan warrior. But more importantly, Romney will have to change the way he talks about his opponent.
In the primary debates, Romney's most important goal was convincing Republican voters that he was a real conservative, and he took on that task with gusto. He repeatedly and emphatically pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and said that "on my first day in office, if I'm lucky enough to have that office, I will grant a waiver to all 50 states from Obamacare," to show base voters he hated it every bit as much as they do. He supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and promised to veto the DREAM Act. He expressed his desire to see Roe v. Wade overturned, vowed to "stand and defend capitalism," reiterated a statement he had made in a speech about being "a severely conservative Republican governor" ("Well, severe, strict," he said in a February 22 debate. "I was without question a conservative governor in my state."), and expressed his hope that both the House and Senate will be controlled by Republicans next year. When asked how the GOP could attract Latinos, he responded like the scourge of the 47 percent: "The answer is by telling them what they know in their heart, which is they or their ancestors did not come here for a handout. If they came here for a handout, they'd be voting for Democrats." And he spun the apocalyptic visions of which Republicans have become so fond. "We're only inches away from no longer being a free economy," he said. "If we stay on the course we're on, with the level of borrowing this administration is carrying out, if we don't get serious about cutting and capping our spending and balancing our budget, you're going to find America in the same position Italy is in four or five years from now, and that is unacceptable."
All of that would be unappealing, in some cases positively repellent, to the broad general election audience Romney now faces. He'll certainly tone down his language and avoid some of those topics. But the trickier part may be changing the way he talks about Barack Obama.
Revisiting the primary debates, one quickly sees that Romney developed his own style of talking about Obama, one that is reflected in his stump speeches. More than any of his primary opponents, Romney got inside Obama's mind, then reported back what he found there. While he certainly talked about Obama's record, his specific criticisms were usually contained within a critique about what Obama "thinks" or "believes," or what he allegedly does or doesn't understand:
"Our president thinks America is in decline."
"This is a president who fundamentally believes that this next century is the post-American century."
"We have in Washington a president who believes in a fundamental transformation of America into an entitlement society."
"We have a president that does not understand, in his heart, in his bones, the nature of American entrepreneurialism, innovation, and work."
Romney's problem is that it's one thing to repeat those kinds of insults about someone who isn't there and whom everyone in the room hates. It's quite another to say them when the person in question is standing right next to you. Obama can just say, "That's not what I believe. What are you talking about?" Romney has never been in a situation where someone might challenge his mind-reading skills, and his evidence for these assertions ranges from thin to non-existent. More important, offering his usual caricature of what Obama "thinks" or "believes" while Obama is standing there shaking his head is likely to make Romney look like a jerk.
It's often said that the challenger is elevated in these debates simply by sharing a stage with the President of the United States on equal terms. That's true, but it's also true that each candidate has to determine how to relate to the other. If Romney hasn't prepared for that, he could do himself some real harm.
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