Notes from Nick: Romney wins first debate—but there are still two more

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By Nick DAngelo

On January 21, 2012, the Republican presidential primary season was thrown off course when Newt Gingrich beat the presumptive front-runner, Mitt Romney, in the South Carolina primary. A solid triumph for the former House Speaker, it cast serious doubts over Romney’s ability to hold a polarized party together. Over the course of the next week, Governor Romney was forced to refocus his campaign, save it from failure and take down a formidable opponent. His best opportunity was the January 26 debate.

The debates had always been a strong suit for Gingrich, who used his lofty rhetoric to rally thirsty conservative foot soldiers. But Romney recognized that this was a do-or-die situation. That night, Romney never missed an opportunity to attack his top rival, he religiously stuck to his message and he won. A few days later, after a primary win in Florida, Romney was back in the lead for the nomination.

Now, months later, Romney has done it again. The former Massachusetts Governor has always been a disciplined candidate, but also one who performs better under pressure. For the past several weeks talk of a doomed campaign plagued the Republican nominee with pundits on both sides claiming the first debate would be Romney’s only chance for survival. The Obama campaign pumped up expectations, calling Romney the “most prepared debater in modern history.” As he did 10 months ago in Florida, Romney successfully reenergized a lackluster campaign and brought it back on task.

The first debate win should not be entirely surprising. After all, debates in general favor challengers. It provides valuable gravitas as the two candidates are equal on a neutralized stage. Traditionally, the first debate, in particular, rewards a challenger. Romney is certainly one of the most practiced debaters, coming from two-dozen forums in the primary season. Recognizing the magnitude that this night would hold, the campaign spent ten days rehearsing and practicing with the nominee. In contrast, President Obama had not debated in four years—and he spent only three days preparing.

It was the size and clarity of the Romney win that made a difference last week. His answers were on message, he used such Reagan-esque lines as “trickle down government” and he put Obama on the defensive for the first full hour. He accomplished his two objectives: to appear compassionate strong. Attempting to be light-hearted, a suggestion from Gingrich himself, Romney made several good jokes (and also some bad ones), but overall, his performance was solid, steady and sobering.

More significantly, President Obama’s performance was not. He appeared awkward and dry. His answers were long, lofty and professorial, and it did not help that he looked beaten and tired. After Romney delivered a line comparing the president to his “five boys,” Obama’s composure seemed to confirm the label of immaturity. His biggest mistakes were missing prime topics: TARP, the auto-bailout and criticizing Romney’s personal story. The president allowed the likeability gap, which he has always monopolized, to narrow.

But will this be 1992 or 2004? This has been a topic of almost constant discussion as commentators and eager viewers attempt to predict this election. It is clear that it is not 1980—a single debate the week before the election elevated Governor Reagan while disallowing any opportunity for President Carter to recover. In 1992, Governor Bill Clinton won every debate, building his national lead as he crept along. President George H. W. Bush already had a tainted image and was reluctant to debate at all. Will the 2012 challenger do the same?

The debates of 2004 may be more telling. Senator John Kerry seemed to clobber President Bush in their first debate, as challengers typically do, but that lead quickly eroded. Ironically, it was Kerry who portrayed Romney in Obama’s debate prep.

Romney has regained stability in his campaign, but he may be unable to sustain it. He is a candidate who works best as an underdog, one who quickly loses his footing.

In 1994, a young Romney nearly took out Ted Kennedy in that year’s U.S. Senate race. It was a series of ill-fated debates that eliminated Romney’s lead and handed a double-digit victory to the Liberal Lion.

Expect Obama to be more aggressive when the two meet again on October 16. The town hall style debate might also favor Obama, although neither candidate is particularly gifted at one-on-one politicking.

Over the next two weeks, the president’s inner circle will be hammering down strong one-liners, creating a harsh offense against Romney and molding a narrative. History favors President Obama to win the second one.

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