After nearly six years of running for president, millions of dollars spent on ads, a massive political convention and hundreds of rallies in swing states such as Ohio, Florida, and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney’s bid to become the next president could come down to a few hours onstage on Wednesday night.
“Come Thursday morning, the entire narrative of this race will change,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.
The debate marks a pivotal moment in Romney’s presidential campaign and perhaps the last chance for him to pull ahead, unless some unforeseen economic or foreign policy calamity shakes up the race.
Polls now show President Obama leading nationally and in key battleground states, thanks to the momentum from the Democratic National Convention; the addition of popular former president Bill Clinton as a campaign surrogate; and a summer during which the Obama campaign successfully put Romney on the defensive and painted him as an out-of-touch plutocrat.
On Wednesday, Romney has the unenviable task of trying to humanize himself for the American public while simultaneously attacking a smooth-talking incumbent. This is the same president who has managed to surge in polls, despite ongoing weak labor and housing markets. If Obama wins, he will be the first incumbent re-elected to office in the last 70 years with a national unemployment rate of over 8 percent.
The Romney campaign has never been able to successfully capitalize on Obama’s mixed economic record. Even the Sunday shows revealed a rift in the way Republican supporters and surrogates deliver their daily campaign messages.
On Sunday, the Republican supporters could not stick to one message regarding the expectations for Romney’s debate performance. Christie spent his airtime promising a dramatic shift in the race following the debate, when “tens of millions” of Americans finally tune in and can compare the two candidates side-by-side. He said the moment could reverse the current state of the race. “Wednesday night is the restart of this campaign,” he said.
But just one hour earlier on Fox News Sunday, Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, sought to dampen expectations. “Look, President Obama is a very … gifted speaker,” Ryan said. “The man's been on the national stage for many years. He's an experienced debater. He's done these kinds of debates before. This is Mitt's first time on this kind of a stage.”
These inconsistent messages do not help the ticket leading up to Wednesday night. What could help Romney are the countless hours he has spent preparing, with Sen. Rob Portman playing a tough imitation of Obama. Romney has also had more debate experience in the last year than the president. By one count, Romney spent 43 hours in 23 separate debates during the long Republican primary.
Obama is well known as a first-class orator, but he has not seen a tough debate in four years, nor has he had people challenge him so directly since his 2008 campaign. His speech at the Democratic convention received mixed reviews.
But the bar is higher for Romney. With more than a month until the election, the former Massachusetts governor needs a way to change the narrative that has begun to take hold: That he’s losing after years of coveting the presidency.
Whether the debate is superficial, filled with zingers or surprises people with its deep dive into policy, Wednesday night remains one of Romney’s last concrete chances to move the needle in a substantive way.
It’s what pundits, politicos, and voters will be watching this week, making the next two days an oddly quiet time in an otherwise frenetic race.
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