It’s the bottom of the ninth inning, and Mitt Romney steps to home plate. He’s trailing his opponent by three, with no runners on. He has to start a last-gasp rally now if he has any hope of victory.
The Republican presidential nominee will be wearing dress shoes instead of cleats, but a last-inning scenario is what he will face when he takes the stage on Wednesday in Denver for the first general-election debate. Romney has hemorrhaged support since the party conventions, according to a barrage of polls, and the candidate once seen as an even-money bet for the White House is now an underdog.
The Centennial State debate, the first of three in October, offers Romney his best—and possibly last—chance to get back in the game. He’ll need to take a disciplined approach and, above all else, resist the urge to try to cure all of his ills in one fell swoop. He should instead focus on a few problems he can realistically fix. In other words: Don’t swing for the fences. Just make solid contact and hope to start a rally.
Going for it all is tempting, considering Romney’s daunting task. His problem as he enters the debates is that he has so many of them. The Republican is the least-liked major-party presidential nominee since at least 1988, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center. In fact, he’s the only one—including even White House washouts Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole—whom voters view more negatively than positively just two months before Election Day.
The private-equity mogul needs to show voters he feels their pain, as one former contender put it, while looking presidential—traditionally an obstacle for challengers seeking to unseat an incumbent. And at the same time, with President Obama’s approval ratings on the rise, Romney must throw a little chin music to knock him down.
That’s a lengthy checklist for a 90-minute forum. It’s also one with contradictory aims: How can a presidential hopeful persuade skeptics to like him while simultaneously hammering his opponent, who, by the way, still enjoys favorable reviews from a majority of voters?
Ronald Reagan did so in 1980, said Todd Domke, a Boston-based Republican strategist, when he famously and amiably scolded President Carter, “There you go again.” Romney’s history, Domke added, suggests that he lacks that kind of ability. “We have to be realistic about what he’s able to achieve in the debates,” Domke cautioned. “What analysts have been saying for seven years is he’s too stiff as a candidate and he has trouble relating to people. So all of a sudden, we raise expectations about what he needs to do in this debate? I don’t think it’s plausible he can do all of that.”
That leaves the GOP standard-bearer in a state of triage, determining which problems he can correct and which he’ll simply have to ignore. His priority, according to Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic consultant who prepared Al Gore and John Kerry for their presidential debates, should be conveying a straightforward, simple message to middle-class Americans that he empathizes with their struggles and knows how to alleviate them.
“I think these overt efforts to make him a likable person so far haven’t gotten anywhere,” Shrum said. “What they should focus on is a convincing explanation of how he understands what they’re going through and how he can fix it. Because you can’t do the first without the second.”
The Democrat cautioned that Romney’s answers need to be practiced and rehearsed to be effective. Romney’s worst-case scenario, he said, would be speaking extemporaneously with tens of millions of people watching. “He instinctively says the wrong thing,” Shrum said. “With Romney, spontaneity is an invitation to calamity.”
The GOP nominee has certainly proved that point in plenty of off-the-cuff moments, from insisting that “corporations are people” to tossing off that his friends own NASCAR teams and his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs. The fallibility also surfaced during the Republican primary debates, when, for example, he offered Texas Gov. Rick Perry a $10,000 bet in a dispute over whether Romney had suggested that his Massachusetts health care law should be a model for the nation. It was the kind of moment that reinforced the caricature of Romney as a man whose wealth has numbed any real understanding of the lives that most Americans lead; another like it would could cost him any chance of clawing his way back into the race.
To be fair, Romney generally performed well in the long string of GOP debates, sparring ably when necessary and rarely straying off message. But Obama isn’t Rick Perry, and unlike some of those debates, Romney doesn’t enter as the front-runner. “I can’t think of a debate where he has accomplished as much as he needs to in this debate,” Domke said.
It’s Romney’s turn at bat. The pressure couldn’t be greater.
Obama, Romney Prep for Debate -- VIDEO
This article appears in the September 29, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.