Return of the Barack: Mitt Romney’s second debate will be his hardest yet

The battle to define the electoral narrative for early voters is in tonight's debate. Photo: David Goldman/AP

WASHINGTON D.C., October 16, 2012 –  Mitt Romney’s first debate showed conservatives exactly what happens when a presidential candidate is mentally prepared, read in on issues that matter to voters and able to communicate in a way that connects  with the viewing audience. But don’t write off the second presidential debate as another grandslam in the works for the Republican nominee just yet: this will likely be the most intense and difficult debate Romney has ever faced in his entire political career.

Beware the “Barack is Back” narrative

Either by accident or design, President Obama held back during his first engagement with Mitt Romney. That tactical television defeat may have given conservatives a Vitamin C morale booster to the arm and Romney a bounce in swing state polls, but it also enraged Obama’s base to aggressively campaign and fundraise like never before to save their incumbent.

Democrats are experts in programming electoral narratives and the danger that Romney faces is he might be walking right into a “Barack is Back” debate ambush. Whoever the staff éminence grise is behind the scenes at the Romney camp needs to know the danger of engaging the same opponent for too long is that he will adapt to you.

Conservatives who hated the way Joe Biden and Martha Raddatz ran roughshod over Paul Ryan in the VP debate best buckle their seatbelts and bring some chamomile tea to their watch parties because tonight will be against an Obama who did his homework. Like Ronald Reagan who initially was confused, overprepped to the point of exhaustion and full of inarticulate senior moments in his first furball with Walter Mondale only to deliver a knockout zinger about Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” in his second debate, Obama will be ready to hammer home a comeback narrative in this second debate.

Romney needs to view tonight’s debate as a moral contest that will either make or break his chances of success with absentee mail-in and early voter walk-in votes. Here’s what I would do to hold my debate opponent at bay and deny them a comeback:

1. Candidates love to talk, so make them talk to your advantage. The ancient Japanese tactician Miyamoto Musashi commanded his readers to learn the art of tai no sen - “wait for the initative!” in his famed Book of Five Rings. Obama, like Romney, is trained like all professional politicians to produce core talking points on demand like a verbal game of rock, paper, scissors. The key is to anticipate the talking points and walk your opponent into them so that you can deliver a response. Do this enough, and you can disrupt the decision making cycle of your opponent and deny him the advantage of what he’s trained for.

Example: in the first debate, Romney missed a critical redirect window when Obama talked about the “excess” of CEOs flying corporate jets. I would have said, “Mr. President, until you start riding coach, you have no right to lecture about excess while flying on Air Force One.” For the coming debate, Romney should mention cutting PBS once more so as to invite Obama to talk about Big Bird. When he does, respond with, “Mr. President, it’s time to save Main Street, not Sesame Street.”

2. Deny use of the Rule of Three. Politicians present ideas in groups of three for maximum effect. Example: in Obama’s 2009 inauguration he said that  his administration would work to “spend wisely” (1), “reform bad habits” (2) “and do our business in the light of day” (3). We call that the Rule of Three. In Obama’s first debate with Romney, he asked “How do we pay for that” (1), “reduce the deficit” (2), and “make the investments we need to make” (3). Notice the sequence, one, two, three; going, going, gone. Knowing this, Romney should interrupt Obama right in the middle of a set of three as often as possible, even if it means provoking the moderator.

3. Make your opponent waste time on things they’re not prepared for. As I discussed in an earlier article, Romney’s best bet for dominating a debate is to make Barack Obama debate Barack Obama by invoking lines from his prior books or speeches he gave at prior events and call out discrepancies between candidate and incumbent. Obama is prepared to debate a Republican. He is not prepared to debate himself.

“Mr. President, on such-and-such page of your book, you said this, but then while in office you did this, and now you’re doing this.” And when presenting proof against your opponent, do it with rapid diction and deliver eight or nine short points in staccato succession because your opponent’s short term memory usually only covers seven items (plus or minus two).

Politics is war and every conflict has a battle to end all battles. With early and absentee voters up for grabs, tonight might just be Armageddon for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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