Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a Republican strategist in Colorado. He is Patrick Davis.
DENVER -- Republican nominee Mitt Romney hit his stride Wednesday night. Where President Obama was flat, Romney was energetic. He was also prepared, aggressive and at times, persuasive.
But the real challenge starts now.
Time and time again over the course of this campaign, Romney has surged only to step on his own momentum. And with 33 days before Election Day and early voting well underway, Romney has got to massage a solid debate performance into a winning streak.
“There’s zero room for error because he’s already behind,” said Patrick Davis, a Colorado-based Republican strategist. “It could be end of the Barack Obama momentum or the beginning of Romney momentum.”
It could be. But Romney has got to seize his most pointed attacks from the debate – interrupting the president to remind him “but you’ve been president for four years!” – and hit that message hard, again and again. Romney should keep up the poignant references to ordinary, struggling people – the jobless Dayton woman who “grabbed his arm,” the Denver mother who lost her home, the overtaxed small electronics business owner in St. Louis – as way to diffuse the widely held perception that he’s out of touch with ordinary people.
Perhaps most importantly, Romney needs to continue painting a picture of a second Obama term that looks even worse than the status quo. His dire prediction of chronic unemployment, rising health care costs, doctor-less Medicare patients and a debilitated military might even have caused some Obama supporters to pause.
Bottom line: Romney has got to keep Obama as snippy and humorless as he was during the debate. “It’s a high-stakes week for him. It’s not just the debate,” said Sara Fagen, a political adviser to former President Bush.
Romney has risen to the challenge when his back is against the wall before during this campaign. But the times he has appeared on the verge of a roll, only to hit rocky patch, are just as abundant.
The glow from his victory in the New Hampshire primary fizzled in a week of clumsy responses to questions about his tax returns and business record. After trouncing a once-surging Newt Gingrich in Florida primary, Romney seemed to confirm what his harshest critics say about him when he said on CNN, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
Coming off an aggressive performance in a primary debate in February, he made an off-the-cuff remark about his wife driving “a couple of Cadillacs.” Most recently, impressive speeches at the Republican convention by Ann Romney, Paul Ryan – and to a lesser extent, by Romney himself -- were drowned out by widespread bewilderment over Clint Eastwood’s rambling comic bit.
Some of these gaffes – the comments about the poor and the Cadillacs – and others like it helped to reinforce the favored Democratic line of attack in 2012: The multi-millionaire former venture capitalist just doesn’t get it. That’s why the recently released video of Romney dismissing, behind closed doors, the “47 percent” of America who depend on government assistance, has been so damaging. If there’s mistake Romney really can’t afford in the homestretch of the campaign, it’s another awkward remark about the haves and have-nots.
“High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They'll do fine whether you're president or I am,” Romney said, making an important point at a time when many voters don’t think he can relate to their problems. “The people who are having the hard time right now are middle-income Americans.”
Romney, who is rarely eloquent, even delivered a thoughtful response to the ideologically rigid, tea party-inspired obstructionists in his own party. “We have to work on a collaborative basis, not because we’re going to compromise our principle but because there’s common ground,” he said. That kind of statesmanship has been scarce in this campaign.
Whether Romney can keep it up in a foreign policy speech on Monday and in the next two debates later this month remains to be seen. And there are factors outside his control such as Friday's jobs report.
Where Romney could improve is in his responses to Obama’s criticism of his tax plan and lack of policy details. “That kind of top-down economics, where folks at the top are doing well….while middle-class families are burdened further, that’s not what I believe is a recipe for economic growth,” Obama said. For Romney to keep saying that the president’s attacks were inaccurate isn’t enough. He was better at explaining how he would lower the deficit without raising taxes when he argued that “the revenue I get is by more people working, getting higher pay, paying more taxes. That's how we get growth and how we balance the budget.”
Romney’s strong debate performance came after a rough few weeks in which Obama opened up leads in some of the swing states that could clinch the election, most notably Ohio. Most national surveys show Obama with a slight edge, though voters were split down the middle in the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll.
Former presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani told reporters before the debate that, “The Romney campaign is really just getting started.” Romney had better hope he’s right.