When the presidential candidates meet tomorrow for their first debate, Mitt Romney will have the most to prove.
Trailing in national polls and in states that could determine the outcome of the race, the Republican nominee will have one of his last opportunities to shift the dynamics of the Nov. 6 election at the event at the University of Denver in Colorado.
It won’t be easy: Romney must defend himself, while also going on offense. With more than 50 million people expected to be watching at 9 p.m. Washington time, Romney intends to reintroduce himself as a candidate with a clear vision to restore economic strength and one who understands the struggles confronting most Americans.
“This is make or break for Mitt Romney because he’s behind,” says David Gergen, a Harvard University professor who has advised a bipartisan roster of four presidents. “When you’re behind, you’ve got to beat the leader. I think it’s going to be very tough.”
Although his aides have played down the importance of the first debate, Romney has been telling donors for months that it will be one of three big moments to move the race in his favor. The other two -- his convention speech and the selection of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan -- didn’t provide boosts in public opinion polls.
Romney has held extensive rehearsals, sessions that have taken place amid internal concerns that a mediocre performance could intensify Republican criticisms of his campaign and prompt donors, other party candidates and voters to distance themselves from his candidacy.
“Obama has a certain momentum,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a former presidential candidate who debated Romney during the Republican primary campaign. “The Romney people are going to be tuning in more concerned.”
Romney has been studying less on policy and more on the timing of delivering scripted zinger lines -- how to attack without appearing angry, aides said.
His team expects to be confronted early in the session about his secretly recorded “47 percent” remark, in which he described almost half the country as dependent on government benefits. He plans to respond with the same argument made in an ad released by the campaign last week, according to aides, in which the former Massachusetts governor speaks directly to the camera and reassures voters that he cares about them.
“We wouldn’t be surprised, obviously if it came up in the debate, and the governor’s prepared, obviously, to respond,” Gillespie told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
How Romney deals with that moment, said Gingrich, will give viewers an indication of how well he is handling the debate. “If Romney tries to explain the 47 percent line, he’s on defense,” the former House speaker said. “If he uses it to pivot and go on offense against Obama, he’s winning.”
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said the debates are part of “a larger conversation” the candidate will have with voters. “I don’t think any one event is going to dramatically alter the race,” Madden told reporters traveling to Denver with Romney.
Obama has a different strategic calculation. He is weighing whether to play it safe and hold what polls suggest is a small to moderate lead or strike a more aggressive tone in an effort to expand his mandate.
In an attempt to lower expectations, aides have said the president has been too busy managing events in the Middle East to practice as much as he would like. Obama has been rehearsing for the past few days in Henderson, Nevada.
While Obama participated in more than 20 debates during the Democratic primary four years ago and three during the general election, his first match-up as an incumbent means he will have to defend his record, taking the blame and credit for his performance on jobs and the economy during the past four years.
The format lends itself to highlighting one of his weaknesses -- a ponderous manner of answering questions, say advisers -- so Obama has been practicing tightening his responses.
Democratic advisers also have been studying Romney. They said he has overcome a weakness on display during the primary -- when he would provide a strong first answer and stumble on the follow-ups. They pointed to a Sept. 20 forum hosted by Spanish-language television station Univision, as evidence that Romney has improved in handling tough questions.
“Romney is a good debater,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist. “I don’t think his problem is his debating skills. I think his problems are his positions, many of which are hard to explain.”
Aides said the president intends to cast Romney as an ideological candidate, homing in on positions Democrats are convinced will drive a wedge between Republicans and swing voters.
His tax plan will be used to charge Romney with being at odds with the interests of middle- and working-class voters, those who lack a college education. And they are preparing to highlight Romney’s record on women’s issues to remind female voters that he opposes equal-pay legislation, insurance coverage of contraception costs and abortion rights.
Obama will also raise Romney’s work as founder and head of Boston-based Bain Capital LLC to bring attention to his personal wealth. It’s a topic the former private-equity executive didn’t always handle well in interviews and primary debates, Obama advisers said. Opponents from both parties seized upon his offer at a December debate to bet primary opponent Rick Perry $10,000, as evidence that Romney was out of touch with average voters.
Romney will also attempt to provoke his opponent. His campaign wants to create a moment that makes Obama come across as smug, a potential flaw the president revealed when he described Democratic primary opponent Hillary Clinton as “likable enough” during a 2008 debate.
Romney “does have an edgy side,” said Gergen. “He needs to not confirm people’s fear that he’s got a nasty arrogant streak.”
Romney, at a rally last night in Denver, said of the debates, “People want to know who’s going to win, who’s going to score the punches. In my view, it’s not so much winning and losing or even the people themselves, the president and myself. It’s about something bigger than that. These debates are an opportunity for each of us to describe the pathway forward for America that we would choose.”
John Elway, the former Denver Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback and now a team executive, introduced the nominee. “Romney is a proven leader with the experience and background to turn around our struggling economy,” Elway told the crowd in a hangar filled with old U.S. Air Force fighter jets at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.