New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 29, 2012
WASHINGTON >> In a conference room at the Democratic headquarters, President Barack Obama has been preparing for the debate next week, but the reviews of his staff are already in. Too long, they tell him. Cut that answer. Give crisper explanations. No one wants a professor; they want a president.
Hundreds of miles away in New England, Mitt Romney’s team has been working to make sure he avoids coming off as a scold. His sparring partner, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, channeling Obama, has gone after him repeatedly, to the point of being nasty. The goal is to get Romney agitated and then teach him how to keep his composure, look presidential.
With more than 50 million people watching and the presidency at stake, the candidates will meet for their first debate on Wednesday at the University of Denver, and both are cramming like college students before an exam. But it is not enough to pore through the voluminous briefing books. Victory may come down to a single exchange, or a single impression, an answer that comes off as too edgy or, conversely, as too long-winded.
Obama’s team records his practices to sharpen his responses so that they connect on a more visceral level with the television audience. One of Romney’s aides calculated his words-per-minute rate in the primary-campaign debates to break him of the habit of feeling that he needs to rattle off the most statistics.
Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August. His strategy includes luring the president into appearing smug or evasive about his responsibility for the economy.
Obama is not particularly fluid in sound bites, so his team is aiming for a workmanlike performance like his speech at the Democratic convention. He is looking to show that Romney would drive the country in an extreme ideological direction at odds with the interests of the middle class.
For both men, it is a chance to reintroduce themselves to the largest audience in the campaign to date. “The debate at one level is almost a Zen moment — who is this person?” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who debated Romney during the Republican primary campaign. “What’s the larger story? What are we watching? What’s the drama we’re watching?”
As the candidates prepare, the first trick for Obama is finding time. His rehearsals have started late and ended early because of events like the tumult in the Middle East. He showed up at one practice just after speaking at a ceremony for the four Americans killed in Libya, and aides found that his mind was elsewhere.
“The ability to find solid blocks of time to do nothing but prepare for debate is almost impossible for a president,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “The world doesn’t wait for debate prep.”
The president plans to decamp on Sunday to Nevada for a less distracting couple of days of practice.
During preparations, fewer than a dozen advisers are in the room. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts plays Romney. Aides press Obama about unemployment, taxes and foreign policy, and try to be “as annoying as a White House correspondent,” as one put it. “You want to push the button and see how he will react,” the aide said.
Obama is a practiced debater after participating in more than 20 during the Democratic primary campaign in 2008, followed by three during the general election. But this will be his first as an incumbent, presenting new challenges.
David Plouffe, the president’s senior adviser, watched debates back to Gerald R. Ford’s against Jimmy Carter with the sound down to understand how a challenger’s stature increases by sharing a stage with the president. Other research found that incumbents unaccustomed to being challenged generally lost the first debate to challengers being taken more seriously by the public than ever before.
Obama advisers are acutely aware that Romney used debates to dispatch Republican rivals one by one during the primary campaign. When they watched Romney’s recent interview with “60 Minutes,” they noticed that his answers were succinct and well rehearsed, a sign of the hours he had invested.
The president’s advisers said they were less interested in one-liners and were focused instead on making Obama more accessible.
“He had a hard time getting every point across within the time limit,” Plouffe said of past debates. “That’s probably the big thing. This is not a mock debate in law school. You are trying to make a case to the people, so you have to make sure your answers connect with people.”
Those who have gone up against Obama said he rarely stumbled over facts but needed to show he understood that voters were hurting.
“Show them personally that you care about them. Empathize,” said former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who debated Obama in 2008. “Take a page from Clinton’s book and say, ‘I feel your pain,’ or something like that.”
While advisers said Obama would present Romney as a dangerous alternative, the president has an incentive to avoid risks, given his lead in battleground states. As important as scoring points will be avoiding mistakes.
“The sale has been made,” said Neera Tanden, who ran debate preparations for Hillary Rodham Clinton against Obama in 2008 and is now the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group. “He just needs to reaffirm it. He just needs to not get in the way.”
By contrast, Romney needs to change the dynamics of the race.
“The debates are very important,” said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Romney. “We see it as an important opportunity to persuade those voters who haven’t yet decided that Gov. Romney would take the country in a better direction.”
Romney has focused on going after Obama without looking too aggressive. He participated in 23 debates during the nomination process, including a pair in Florida in which he effectively destroyed Gingrich’s threat. But general election debates tend to be more sober than the food-fight-type confrontations of a primary season.
“He came in very, very aggressive, very well prepared and ready to stick with his pitch no matter what,” Gingrich said. “That is a pretty good setup for Obama. The challenge he’s going to have is he’s essentially indicting Obama while standing next to him. He has to do it in a way that’s firm, respectful and pleasant.”
During rehearsals, Romney has tried lines of attack suggesting that Obama distorts the facts and sloughs off responsibility on others. Romney’s aides recall Obama’s tart “you’re likable enough” line to Hillary Clinton in 2008 and hope to goad him into a similarly churlish moment. Romney will win, the advisers said, if he can force Obama to come across as condescending or smug.
To prepare him, Portman has played Obama combatively, attacking Romney as a rich man who does not care about average Americans. Evidently, he has gotten under the candidate’s skin. “We get the chance to debate one another, and after the hour and a half or so is over, I want to kick him out of the room,” Romney said recently.
True to reputation, Romney has practiced for months, starting in June in Utah, through three days this month in Vermont. Once, when a problem with a charter plane kept Romney out until after midnight, his adviser, Beth Myers, asked if he still wanted to practice the next day. “Painful,” he emailed, “but yes.”
All the practice in the world, though, may not matter if he cannot control the dialogue and keep Obama from throwing him off his plan.
“The governor’s done a great job of convincing people that the economy’s bad,” said Brett O’Donnell, a Republican debate coach who worked briefly for Romney. “He’s got to do a better job of making the case that President Obama’s directly responsible for that. That’s got to be his focus. If it becomes about anything else, then I think the governor’s at a disadvantage.”