WASHINGTON, October 1, 2012 — Whatever former Governor Mitt Romney does during the debates, he must not seem desperate, although the recent polls probably give him a sinking feeling. He has to act like a winner if he is to win the debate. Now there is no doubt that the Republican nominee for president is going to be on edge, wanting to drive his points home. There should be little worry that he will just mail them in. There’s too much is at stake.
Fortunately, Romney has had a great debate partner in Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman. And he has had plenty of practice debating this year, having been in 19 debates, so he knows his stuff and he knows how to fire back an answer in the allotted two minutes. In fact, most people say he won 18 of the primary debates, losing only in South Carolina to Newt Gingrich.
But the pressure is on: Romney has to win this first debate if he is to stay viable. Meanwhile, his running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday” that “I don’t think one event [referring to the debate] is going to make or break this campaign.” Not a ringing endorsement, Congressman.
However, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on “Face the Nation” said that he has great confidence that Romney will turn the race “upside down.” And Christie may be right: This debate could give Romney his mojo, making the American voters give him another chance.
Yet Obama is no slouch with words, Mitt, so you need to keep your focus and not wander into the quicksand that lurks in all debates, taking down some of the best debaters. I gave Obama my two cents worth of advice, so for what it’s worth, here’s my advice for you Wednesday night:
1. Avoid flip-flopping. You had been dubbed the Etch-A-Sketch man by your primary opponents and the Obama campaign loves to find issues where you seem to be on both sides of it, like your Health Care plan in Massachusetts, so you need to stay consistent. Voters favor candidates who don’t deviate from their positions. Having no nuances wins more votes than outlining subtle differences, much less outright flip-flops.
You need to take your theme and hammer it over and over. Remember it is supposed to be the economy. Where are the jobs? Why is our GDP at 1.3 % so low? Why is our deficit out of control? Those three facts alone should be giant killers. They could be your answer to anything President Obama flings your way. Even better, you know he will veer off into other areas to avoid the Big Three. Just bring him back to the core problems facing America. The first 45 minutes of Wednesday’s debate are devoted solely to the economy. Here’s your chance to give it your best shot.
2. Avoid ad-libs. No off-the-cuff remarks. No letting your hair down. Stay coiffed. Look Presidential. Sound Presidential. No “wanna bet $10,000 bucks?” remarks. Stick to the script. You had a dynamite team prepare you. Not just Portman, but chief counsel Ben Ginsburg, campaign manager Matt Rhoades, senior advisers Stuart Stevens, Eric Fehrnstrom, Kevin Madden, Beth Myers, Peter Flaherty, and campaign chairman Bob White.
Everyone always tell debaters to relax. Bad advice. That’s when they fall into loosey-goosey, making the faux pas that come back to haunt them, like your criticism of London’s Olympics. Stay up tight and stay on your toes, while allowing no slips of the tongue that can get you into trouble.
3. Avoid canned answers. So while you must, must stay on message, you need to avoid being robotic, something even your biggest supporters have called you. Your detractors even use the K word – Ken doll. So your answers must seem to come from the gut and the heart and not memorized in some prep session. Voters want to feel that you feel their pain. President Clinton was a master at this. However, it doesn’t come easily to Obama either, but thus far he’s been better at it than you.
So you have a tough task, maintaining a level head without seeming wooden or dispassionate. Just remember the voters need to see some passion.
4. Have zingers in your quiver.
We have heard that your prep time has included loading up your quiver with zingers. That’s smart. Just deliver them with a smile not a sneer. Close to 50 million Americans will watch the first debate, with most of them being voters, and we Americans love a good poke at the other guy in a joust. Just no meanness. You definitely will want to rile Obama and throw him off his stride. That’s how the debate game is played.
Just keep in mind that a zinger can sometimes boomerang as happened to Al Gore during the 2000 Presidential debate. Gore decided to use a little body language to rattle George W. Bush. The two men sat on stools and could walk around the debate space as they answered questions. Bush was in the midst of answering a question when Gore quietly walked right up and into Bush’s space.
Bush looked over at Gore suddenly standing right next to him. He just gave Gore an abrupt nod and then finished his answer, unrattled. The audience burst out laughing and applauding. With one disdainful nod, Bush had taken Gore down. From that point on, it was over for Gore as a debater.
5. Don’t let Obama define you. Because he will try. His campaign ads have done a bang-up job of telling Americans who you are all summer, even if that is not your version of who Mitt Romney is. You have said that the debates will offer you a chance to push back against what you call distortions by the Obama campaign on the auto bailout, your record on abortion, tax rates for the middle class, and your 47% remark. “He’s [Obama] is trying to fool people into thinking that I think things I don’t. And that ends, I think, during the debates.”
Experts claim that a debater needs to score significant points in the first 30 minutes to win the debate. Here is your chance to show the unvarnished Mitt Romney. In the debates there is no filter. No media to interpret you. No campaign ads to distort you or your message.
There is nothing between you and the viewers except the camera. And it is unflinching and at times unforgiving, so you need to make your case through your words, your demeanor, and most of all your vision for America with specifics that voters can hear and then say, “Yeah, maybe Romney would be better in the Oval Office.”
You have been in business most of your life. Now is the time to be the super salesman, sell yourself and close the deal. At this point only you can do it.
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