By the fall of 1994, Edward Kennedy, then 62 years old, had spent more than half his life in the U.S. Senate. He had cruised to reelection five times after his only even slightly competitive race—the first one, which was a special election to fill the seat once held by his brother John—nine months after he reached the constitutional minimum age of 30. But in 1994, Mitt Romney thought the time could be right to dethrone Kennedy. Romney was 47 years old and already rich from his years at Bain & Company and Bain Capital. The now-famous photo of him and other Bain Capital executives grinning as they clutched and bit wads of cash was 10 years in the past; under Romney as its CEO, Bain Capital had been a stunning success, beginning a 15-year run of returns five times greater than the overall stock market’s through that period. The year was shaping up as a very good one for Republicans. A Boston Globe poll in late September showed Kennedy barely in the lead over Romney, 48 percent to 46; another poll showed Romney ahead. A Newsday story was headlined “Kennedy in Fight of His Political Life.”
As it turned out, of course, Kennedy held on. Romney got 41 percent of the vote, which was more than any challenger before or after but still not even close to Kennedy’s 58 percent. Romney now looks back and says he knew he never had a chance and was running mainly because he felt a civic duty to stand up against “a man who I thought by virtue of the policies of the liberal welfare state had created a permanent underclass in America.” Romney put some $3 million of his own money into the race. He said of Kennedy at a Republican primary debate early this year, “I was happy that he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me.”
But while the race was under way, Romney fought like a man trying hard to win. The Romney who took on Teddy Kennedy 18 years ago remains a highly useful guide to the candidate who will stand next to Barack Obama in the three debates scheduled this fall. Romney’s record then and in the years since suggests that if Obama is taking anything for granted about these encounters, he is making a mistake.
VIDEO: Fallows discusses clips that demonstrate Romney's debating strengths and weaknesses.
Mitt Romney is far less effective as a big-speech orator than Barack Obama, and in many other aspects of campaigning he displays what appear to be laboriously studied moves rather than anything that comes naturally. But debates are and have been his strength. He grew up enjoying “big, boisterous arguments about everything around the dinner table,” according to his campaign strategist and main debate-prep specialist, Stuart Stevens. “He loves the dialectic of arguing the different sides, and he’s most uncomfortable when no one is disagreeing with him.” He will enter this fall’s encounters with very recent, successful experience in a very wide range of formats and challenges.
In none of the Republican primary debates was Romney judged the big loser; in many he was the clear winner, and as the campaign wore on, the dominant image from the debates was of a confident Romney, standing with a slight smile on his face and his hands resting easily in his pockets, looking on with calm amusement as the lesser figures squabbled among themselves and sometimes lashed out at him.
Civics teachers won’t want to hear this, but the easiest way to judge “victory” in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates’ ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language. By this standard, Ron Paul, with his chronically ill-fitting suits, often looked cranky; Rick Santorum often looked angry; Rick Perry initially looked poleaxed and confused; Jon Huntsman looked nervous; Newt Gingrich looked overexcited—and so on through the list until we reach Mitt Romney, who almost always looked at ease. (As did Herman Cain, illustrating that body language is not everything.) Romney looked like the grown-up—the winner, the obvious candidate—with or without sound. “He is as good as it gets in debating,” former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who was the first major contender to drop out of the Republican race, told me. “He is poised, prepared, smart, strategic—tactical, too.”