President Barack Obama needs some drama.
The candidate known for his “No Drama Obama” persona created, with his dispassionate first debate performance, a high-stakes backdrop for tomorrow’s 9 p.m. rematch against Republican nominee Mitt Romney at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
The doubts raised by the president’s first showing, paired with tightening polls and a fresh burst of enthusiasm for Romney, have ignited Democratic concerns that the advantage in the race is moving to the Republicans. With early voting taking place in competitive states and the Nov. 6 Election Day just over 3 weeks away, Obama must go on the offensive, laying out clear contrasts with Romney and making the kind of personal connection with voters that helped him win four years ago.
“It’s as important as a Game 7 in the World Series even though there’s a third debate,” said Chris Lehane, an unaffiliated Democratic strategist. “The pressure will be on the president to step to the plate and deliver.”
During prep sessions for the Oct. 3 debate, Obama, 51, was inconsistent, sometimes on the mark while at other times more like the languid candidate who showed up to the podium that night. He and his aides are determined not to let that happen again, said a person familiar with the sessions who asked for anonymity to describe them.
In sessions at a Williamsburg, Virginia resort, they’ve been preparing the president to challenge Romney when he strays from his previously held positions and statements, while going after his record as Massachusetts governor and the former private equity executive’s experience at the helm of Bain Capital LLC.
On style, they’re preparing Obama for the town hall format of the debate, where questions come directly from audience members. The setting plays to Obama’s strength of appearing more personable than Romney -- yet he has to work against his tendencies to act professorial and cerebral.
“The American people should expect to see a much more energized President Obama making a passionate case for why he is a better choice for the middle class,” said Jen Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman.
Unlike his first debate preparations, when he sprinkled a campaign event and a visit to the Hoover Dam in between his rehearsals, the president, save a few walks for fresh air and a stop at a nearby field office, has spent most of his time behind closed doors with his team, including Democratic Massachusetts Senator John Kerry playing the part of Romney. Anita Dunn, an outside campaign adviser, is playing the part of the moderator, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley.
Romney, 65, also spent most of yesterday huddling with top aides, including long-time confidant Bob White and senior strategist Beth Myers, in a Marriott hotel ballroom near his Belmont, Massachusetts, home. In recent days he has held dress rehearsals to become familiar with the town-hall style, with Republican Ohio Senator Rob Portman playing the role of Obama.
For Romney, a strong second debate performance may shift the narrative of the race from a short-term Republican surge to a sustained advance -- with Obama in a steady slide.
Romney’s campaign is readying their candidate to refute expected accusations casting him as someone who has altered his views for political gain. Aides said yesterday their candidate will hit back, by continuing his assault against Obama’s economic policies. Romney will highlight his record of working with Democrats when he was governor -- a part of his biography that aides said is less well-known to voters.
“The president can change his style. He can change his tactics. He can’t change his record. And he can’t change his policies,” senior adviser Ed Gillespie said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” today.
When talking about his own policies, Romney will likely continue his effort to broaden his message and moderate his tone to reach undecided voters.
His recast message was highlighted last week, when Romney told an Iowa editorial board that he wouldn’t pursue anti-abortion-rights legislation if elected -- a position that conflicted with his previous pledges, including cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, an organization that offers abortion services and provides broader women’s health screenings.
Democratic strategists and outside experts have pointed to Vice President Joe Biden’s debate tactics as the model for Obama -- minus the smirks and laughter. The president must balance showing the passion that was missing in Denver, while not appearing arrogant or condescending to Romney, they said.
On substance, Biden set a clearer template. When he squared off Oct. 11 against Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, Biden challenged the Republican vice presidential nominee on his statements about taxes and health care. The vice president early in the 90-minute session raised Romney’s secretly recorded remarks that 47 percent of Americans are victims dependent on government. He pressed Ryan on the math behind Romney’s tax plan, refuting the campaign’s assertion that to pay for a 20 percent across the board tax cut those earning below $200,000 wouldn’t see their taxes go up or popular deductions, including home mortgages, eliminated.
“Look, folks, use your common sense,” Biden said, looking directly into the camera, during an exchange about Ryan’s proposal to overhaul Medicare, the health-care system for older Americans. “Who do you trust on this?”
After spending months painting Romney as a representative of the ideological extreme wing of the Republican Party, Obama was caught flat-footed by the former governor’s shift to a more moderate stance on issues ranging from immigration to taxes.
“No Drama Obama needs dramatic encounters that clarify distinctions,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “For Obama to do well, the next debate needs more clash.”
The town-hall format, with Crowley taking pre-screened questions from audience members, may favor Obama.
“President Obama does well in these town-hall-style formats, and we expect he will be more aggressive and launch one attack after another in an attempt to make up for his weak debate performance in Denver,” said Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom.
Foreign policy, while not a topic in the first debate, may be in the mix tomorrow. Obama may be forced to confront questions about security lapses in Libya leading up to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Romney has charged that the administration failed to provide adequate security in Libya and left the consulate exposed to a terrorist attack. It’s an assertion that may need more nuance since Jan Stevens, 77, the father of the former ambassador, told Bloomberg News Oct. 13 that the tragedy should not be politicized by the presidential campaign.
“It would really be abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue,” Stevens said in a telephone interview from his home in Loomis, California, as he prepares for a memorial service for his son this week.
While historical studies have shown that debates don’t typically alter election outcomes, the first debate in Denver did help Romney to solidify and motivate the Republican Party base. Polls have narrowed in several key battleground states including Ohio, Virginia and Florida, where the president led heading into the first debate.
A Bloomberg News Swing Voter poll in Ohio and Virginia conducted in the days after the debate found that married mothers, a Republican-leaning group -- gave Romney higher marks for dealing with the economy and supported the Republican nominee over Obama 50 percent to 44 percent in Ohio and 50 percent to 45 percent in Virginia.
“I think the wind is at Governor Romney’s back and we’re clearly on momentum,” Gillespie said on Fox News Sunday. “You can see it on the trail. You can see it in the data.”
Nationally, a Washington Post/ABC News poll released today found Obama leading Romney 49 percent to 46 percent, within the margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The telephone poll of 923 likely voters was conducted Oct. 10-13. When those voters were asked whether their opinion of the candidates had changed after the first debate in Denver, 37 percent said they had a better opinion of Romney and 19 percent said they had a worse opinion of Obama.
Obama’s advisers have said the president is at his best when there’s the most at stake, likening him to a basketball player who needs to make the winning shot with a free-throw in the final seconds of a game.
Obama, who last year called himself the “underdog” in the 2012 race, may need to feel like everyone is counting him out in order to rise to the occasion.
“Over the course of his career, he has proven to be Mr. Clutch,” said Lehane. “Whereas Romney -- aside from last week’s debate -- is not one who has a record of prime-time performances beyond being a singles and doubles hitter.”