In the first U.S. presidential debate, Mitt Romney was a bully. He not only took Barack Obama’s lunch money, he took his jacket, and told him to go stand in the corner and keep his mouth shut, as well. It was a shameful outing for the president. A poll done by CNN immediately following the debate had viewers favoring Mr. Romney’s performance by a whopping 67% to Mr. Obama’s 25%. The president was undressed.
This Tuesday, the second of the debates, don’t expect the beam to be so tilted toward the Republican nominee.
Two weeks ago, the president came off as very lethargic, unwilling and unable to match the aggression and enthusiasm of his challenger. As a result, Mr. Romney, who I’ve always emphasized needed spectacular showings in all of these debates to have a good chance in November, swung ferociously at the president’s head and connected more often than not on his blows.
He spoke confidently of his plans and his view of government. Even though the debate veered into stats and numbers quite a bit, one left the debate feeling Mr. Romney was a man who knew his stuff, and as such, he appeared presidential.
Another thing that also happened is that the middle became crowded. Mr. Romney, who throughout the brawl for the Republican nomination sold his soul many times over to the “rightest” of right in his party, that night, repositioned himself as a moderate. Thanks to Mr. Obama’s inexplicable nods and docility, the former governor reintroduced himself as a middle-of-the-road guy to the American viewer. He disavowed all the labels of a vicious apathetic elitist with which the Obama campaigned had successfully painted him.
Maybe, this was why the president appeared a deer caught in the headlights; too dumbfounded to believe what he was hearing and mutter the slightest of arguments to save his own candidacy.
Watching that night, I noted on Twitter that to win a debate, it doesn’t matter how outrageous your allegations against your opponent are—you need only say them confidently and repeatedly; after all, viewers are not looking through a fact book as you speak. Mr. Romney was able to do this successfully.
In this second debate, expect the rebirth of Barack Obama. Chastised by a very angry and miffed base, expect the president to come out swinging. For all the allegations Mr. Romney seemed to get away with at the last debate, expect the president to methodologically and surgically attempt to break them apart with facts and figures from his own fact-checkers.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama’s strategy would be to push Mr. Romney out of the middle he now seeks to occupy. Mr. Obama will aggressively seek to reconsolidate his hold of this ground—reminding voters that he got there first and has always been there. Expect the president to cast his challenger as an incurable flip-flopper who will say everything and anything to get elected—an ambitious elitist who cares only for his millionaire friends and sees only the bottom line: forgetting America is not a business but a people. And for this, Mr. Obama will go to great lengths to show his record in fighting for America’s middle class, as well as embracing positions that are not popular with his own Democratic base.
As Gwen Ifill of PBS rightly notes, to defeat an incumbent, a challenger must overwhelmingly show a president as incompetent. This is a tall order for Mr. Romney. An economy in free fall when Mr. Obama took office has now stabilized as evident by the latest September unemployment numbers. One war is over and the other will soon, too.
But don’t expect Mr. Romney to give up his fight for the middle so easily; his success in November depends on it. Both candidates need the independent voters that will make or break this election. He will, by force of necessity, double down on his performance from two weeks ago. The difference will be, this time; Mr. Obama shall find his tongue and remind him of his own words: the ones said in public and those when he thought no one was listening. It will now be Mr. Romney’s turn to call the president a liar.
Ladies and gentlemen, it shall be a heated and passionate debate. You might want to send the kids early to bed for this one.