Going into Wednesday’s debate, a number of commentators jokingly wondered “which Mitt Romney would show up.” A jab on Twitter by comedian Conan O’Brien (which was retweeted more than 8,000 times) was typical: "Romney prepped for tonight’s debate by debating with a man whose views differ radically from his own: himself from 8 years ago."
So in a way, the biggest shock was how utterly nonplussed President Obama seemed when he suddenly found himself standing onstage with … Mitt the Moderate.
Maybe it’s because that version of Mr. Romney had been missing for so long that the president was simply lulled into believing he might never return.
Really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s standard practice: Presidential candidates are forced to run to the right (or left) during the primary season – but as soon as they’ve secured the nomination, they begin pivoting back to the center.
But all summer long, the anticipated Romney pivot never seemed to happen. If anything, Romney seemed to be speaking more and more to the right wing – leading many to assume that his advisers were viewing this as a base election, trying to maximize turnout among partisans rather than appeal to independents.
So much for that theory. Wednesday night, on issue after issue, Romney hewed determinedly to the center, softening his positions on everything from taxes to regulation, often blurring distinctions between himself and Mr. Obama.
His tax plan? Romney insisted repeatedly that he would not give a net tax break to upper-income Americans, and that his tax plan would not add to the US deficit. “I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about,” he said. “My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.”
Tax breaks for oil companies like ExxonMobil? They’re “on the table.”
Medicare? He presented himself as the program's real protector: “I want to take that $716 billion you've cut and put it back into Medicare.”
Regulation of business? “Regulation is essential. You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation.” In fact, the biggest problem with Dodd-Frank, according to Romney, was that it designated “five banks as too big to fail and [gave] them a blank check.”
Smartly, Romney also made Obama seem like the partisan one, attacking him for pushing through health-care reform “entirely on a partisan basis,” without a single Republican vote. He also didn’t run away from his health-care plan in Massachusetts at all.
It was like watching the Romney from 1994, back when he was running against Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy – except in this debate, probably fortunately for Romney, cultural issues never came up at all, so he wasn't forced to try to moderate any of those positions.
Of course, the question now is whether this one debate performance will be enough to reestablish Moderate Mitt as the image voters hold of Romney – or whether the more conservative candidate they saw for much of the campaign (which was reinforced by an unrelenting slew of Obama attack ads) is already set in stone?
You can bet that the Obama campaign will be working overtime in coming days to revive Conservative Mitt (and, maybe even more deadly, Phony Mitt). But many undecided voters may be willing to see Romney in a whole new light. After all, these days, reinventing yourself is the American Way. For voters who have been unhappy with Obama’s performance – but also put off by what they had seen up to now of Romney – what they saw onstage Wednesday night may well have been reassuring. At least one participant in CNN's focus group said afterward that she felt "relieved." For Obama, the return of Moderate Mitt could be a big problem.
Is Joe Biden the GOP’s new secret weapon?
That’s what the Mitt Romney presidential campaign appears to believe. It’s begun to publicize VP Biden’s twisted tongue moment of Tuesday, in which he said “the middle class ... has been buried the last four years,” in an attempt to turn the sitting Veep’s own words against his boss.
The Romney camp already has an ad up in which Biden is front and center. Titled “Couldn’t Say It Better,” it starts with about 15 seconds of clips of Romney and his VP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan saying that the “Obama economy” has crushed the middle class, workers are suffering, and so forth.
Then it cuts to Biden speaking Tuesday at a campaign appearance in Charlotte, N.C. “The middle class ... has been buried” he shouts to the crowd. Then comes a white screen, and a simple phrase, “We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.”
Top Romney surrogate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was even more cutting at an appearance Wednesday in Colorado. He repeated Biden’s statement to a roomful of Republicans, then said, “He’s the best thing we’ve got going, guys. Because in a moment of clarity, in a brief moment of clarity, he told us what we already knew.”
Will this work? Well, Biden’s sentence certainly fits into the Romney campaign’s original strategy for the race. That was to hammer home the jobless numbers and tie them to President Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
There’s a presidential candidate debate Wednesday night in Denver – just in case you hadn’t heard – and it’s supposed to focus on economic issues. We’re pretty sure that some variation of “middle class” and “buried” will work its way into a pre-planned Romney zinger.
The problem for Romney is that his economic message alone hasn’t been carrying him toward victory. Lagging a few stubborn percentage points behind Obama in the polls, the former Massachusetts governor has had to broaden his approach, hitting the administration on its policies toward the Middle East and other foreign issues as he attempts to portray himself as a more forceful choice for the Oval Office.
Plus, voters in general don’t necessarily see the wealthy Romney as the best candidate to look out for the middle class’s interests. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey 66 percent of respondents said that Obama does more to favor the middle class than the wealthy. Only 35 percent made the same judgment about Romney.
Finally, it’s unlikely you’ll see the fuller context of the Biden “buried” quote in a GOP ad anytime soon. At the time he spoke those words, he was working up a dudgeon about Romney’s tax proposals, which the Obama campaign maintains inevitably would lead to a higher taxes for those in the middle.
“This is deadly earnest,” Biden told the North Carolina crowed. “How they can justify, how they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years? How in the Lord’s name can they justify raising their taxes? We’ve seen this movie before....”
Yes, this charge is itself based on a fairly tenuous analysis of Romney’s plans. But the GOP still has to shear off most of what Biden said to make his statement something they can use in their ads.
They're hoping for some political theater, hopefully some new insight into the candidates' views and policies and character, and perhaps a gaffe or game-changing moment.
But – while there may be some freewheeling conversation between Messrs. Obama and Romney – the debate itself is tightly scripted, with fairly strict rules.
Here's what you can expect:
How many questions will there be, and who chooses them?
In this first, 1-1/2-hour debate, there will be just six questions, all focused on domestic issues.
Moderator Jim Lehrer, of PBS Newshour, has already outlined what their basic thrust will be: three questions on the economy, one on health care, one on governing, and one on the role of government. Mr. Lehrer chooses the questions.
This is a change from past years, in which debates have typically had more questions and shorter discussion times. Lehrer, in part, advocated for the new format, and pushed to reduce the number of questions from nine to six, in the hopes that it would encourage more of a television talk-show approach, in which the candidates engage in discussion rather than just deliver talking points.
What are the rules of the debate?
Each question will have a 15-minute period devoted to it. After Lehrer asks the question, each candidate will get two minutes to respond. After that initial response, Lehrer can ask follow-up questions to provoke discussion between the two. The candidates will also have two minutes for closing statements.
The candidates cannot ask each other questions.
What about the rest of the debates?
In between, the debate commission will shake things up with a town-hall style debate on Oct. 16. In that debate, undecided voters selected by Gallup will ask the questions. Candidates will each get two minutes to respond, along with an additional minute for the moderator (CNN correspondent Candy Crowley) to facilitate a discussion.
The vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 will be more similar to the first and last debates, but with nine 10-minute segments that focus on both domestic and foreign policy. ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz is moderating.
How have the candidates been preparing?
Romney has been practicing in Massachusetts with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as the Obama stand-in. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, meanwhile, has been acting as Romney in Obama's debate-prep sessions in Nevada.
Do newly released clips of a 2007 speech by then-Sen. Barack Obama show him using racially divisive language? That’s what conservatives are charging Wednesday after the right-leaning Daily Caller posted online the tape of the address, which Mr. Obama made to black clergy at Hampton University in Virginia.
In the speech Obama suggests that the Bush administration discriminated against hurricane Katrina victims by, among other things, not providing as generous terms for federal aid as Washington did to New York after 9/11 and to Florida after hurricane Andrew, because they were disproportionately minorities. That, he says, led to a “quiet riot” among US blacks in the storm's aftermath. He gives a shout-out of welcome to his then-pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (The Rev. Mr. Wright’s racially tinged rhetoric caused Obama to later renounce their association.)
Overall, Obama delivered his words in a preacher-like style he has seldom used in other public forums. Conservatives say that is yet more evidence that in 2007 he was pandering to his audience.
The speech itself was widely covered in 2007, with CNN and the Associated Press filing reports, among other media outlets. Obama’s relationship with the controversial Wright was separately an item of intense media scrutiny during the last campaign. Mr. Carlson himself said he’d covered the address at the time.
But he and other conservatives said the media missed key parts of Obama’s Hampton University appearance, including the shout-out to Wright and other ad-libbed parts of the performance.
Still, Democrats denounced the tape as old news and as a transparent ploy to counter the “47 percent” tape of GOP nominee Mitt Romney saying at a fundraiser that almost half of Americans feel they are victims and are dependent on government largesse.
“I’m not even sure what it is, exactly, the right finds so noteworthy about the 2007 speech,” wrote liberal Steven Benan on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow blog. “Obama criticized the government’s response to Katrina? His speeches used a cadence Drudge found overtly racial? Obama mentioned his former pastor?”
In general, Democrats say the point of the whole thing is to reveal the not-astounding fact that Obama was, and remains, himself black.
Will a video from 2007 have much of an effect on the 2012 presidential election? Given that the first presidential debate is Wednesday night, news about this stuff will likely get buried soon. Plus, even some Republicans doubt that this is the sort of information that will change any voters' minds.
After all, Obama has been president now for four years. It’s mostly his performance in the White House that voters will weigh in deciding whether to rehire him for another four years. At this date, most Americans have fixed ideas about his governing style and personality. Relitigating the Wright controversy isn't going to change that.
“The Romney team is smart enough to know the video serves no useful purpose for its campaign. It is out to convince middle-class and blue-collar voters that Obama is a failure, not a radical. (They simply aren’t going to buy the latter.),” wrote conservative Jennifer Rubin Wednesday on her Right Turn blog at the Washington Post.
In that context, for the GOP the more politically useful event of Tuesday may be Vice President Joe Biden’s gaffe. The veep said, “the middle class has been buried the last four years” while decrying Mr. Romney’s proposed economic policies during a Virginia campaign appearance.
In regards to the 2007 video, the real target of conservative ire appears to be the mainstream media. The right sees the MSM as getting all worked up about alleged race-baiting on the part of Republicans, while ignoring Democratic appeals to race.
“The larger point here is that the media has a double standard on race, and a double standard for Republicans,” writes Ed Morrissey on the conservative Hot Air! website.
Reporters will be watching for many things at Wednesday night’s debate. But, hands down, the most eagerly anticipated element has got to be: Mitt Romney’s zingers.
Since then, the anticipation (and, yes, the mockery) has gone into overdrive.
IN PICTURES: US presidential debates
“Zingers. Because Americans need to know that their leader has a well-honed sense of zing,” deadpanned Stephen Colbert on Tuesday night’s “Colbert Report.” “On Day 1, our new president must be able to face Iran’s leader – and ask him if the place where he bought that shirt also has a men’s department.”
The challenge, of course, is that Mr. Romney has not exactly shown himself to be a zinger-ish kind of guy. So far, his most memorable lines from the campaign trail have all tended to fall more in the “gaffe” category. Like his recorded remarks about the 47 percent. Or his spontaneous offer of a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).
In The New Yorker, Nathaniel Stein imagined Romney’s debate preparations:
ROMNEY: I have some ideas for more zingers. How about, “I hate being able to fire people!”
AIDE: Hmm ... I like it, but I’m not quite sure if that’s right for the debate.
ROMNEY: No, you misheard me. “I hate being able to fire people.”
AIDE: No, I heard, but –
ROMNEY: O.K., here’s another. “You know what I just can’t get enough of? The forty-seven per cent of Americans who are blood-sucking victims. That’s the America I love.”
AIDE: Maybe we should stick to the list.
The truth is that Romney really could benefit from a good, well, zinger. He’s down in the polls – though not by a lot – so a debate win could go a long way toward helping him close the gap. And even more than a win, he could use one memorable “moment” (another overused word) that draws a big crowd reaction and sticks in voters’ minds.
The problem, however, is that zingers are inherently risky. If they’re too transparently cooked up, or badly delivered, they’ll fall flat. Which would definitely be worse than no zinger at all.
Romney is capable of being funny. In recent remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative, after being introduced by former President Clinton, he drew genuine laughs when he said: "If there's one thing we've learned this election season, it's that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good. After that introduction, I guess all I have to do is wait a day or two for the bounce."
He also can deliver a forceful retort. During one GOP primary debate, when Governor Perry declared that former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than Romney, Romney came back with: “Well, as a matter of fact, George W. Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor.” At another debate, he delivered a punchy attack on former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, over his support for earmarks: “While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere.”
To some extent, we’ve begun wondering if all the discussion of zingers has made it almost impossible for any candidate to produce a good one. At this point, even the famous historic debate zingers – “I'm paying for this microphone,” “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” “Where’s the beef?” – have been replayed so many times that they’ve become clichéd.
So, the anticipation continues to build. Will Romney be able to deliver? Will his zingers be funny? Sarcastic? Painfully awkward?
Or will he, at this point, decide that he can’t possibly live up to all the hype – and forgo zingers altogether? It would probably be the safer option. The press corps, however, would be sorely disappointed.
Joe Biden on Tuesday said the middle class “has been buried the last four years,” words Republicans trumpeted as evidence that even President Obama’s veep doesn’t believe the incumbent administration has been good for the country.
“Of course the middle class has been buried. They’re being buried by regulations, they’re being buried by taxes, they’re being buried by borrowing,” said Mr. Ryan. “They’re being buried by the Obama administration’s economic failures.”
Will this gaffe matter in the end? We have our doubts, though we’ve been wrong before.
First let’s look at the full context of Biden’s statement. Speaking to a crowd in North Carolina, Veep Joe repeated the administration’s claim that if elected Mr. Romney will have to raise taxes on the middle class in order to make the math of his tax proposals work.
“This is deadly earnest. How they can justify, how they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years? How in the Lord’s name can they justify raising their taxes? We’ve seen this movie before....“
Yes, Biden stepped in it, in the sense that he produced a phrase the Romney folks can snip out and use in attack ads. The reality is the US economy isn’t great, and his boss is going to be very unhappy with Biden for pointing that out. Republicans will certainly use this to try to counter Democratic attacks on Romney for his comments at a fundraiser that depicted 47 percent of America as self-perceived victims hooked on government aid.
But Biden’s main point was that he doesn’t approve of Romney’s tax plan. He believes it will hurt the middle class. His inartful phrase detracts from that, but Biden and inartful go together like ham and eggs, or Delaware and highway tolls. (See “chains,” as in something the GOP will put you back in, which Biden said in August to a largely minority audience.)
So will voters see this as a game-changer, or Joe being Joe? We figure that will split along partisan lines without really moving truly uncommitted voters in the middle.
Generally speaking, gaffes, flubs, or verbal blow-ups don’t move polls much anyway. They’re shiny baubles that are fun for the press and political junkies, but nothing but a crumpled piece of tinfoil for everyone else. The “47 percent” stuff may have moved polls a percentage point or two, but that would be an exception to a general rule.
Plus, if Biden is going to wound himself with his own rhetoric, this week would be a good time. There’s a presidential debate Wednesday, in case you haven’t heard. The news from that is likely to overshadow Biden’s “middle class buried” words. At least it will overshadow it until Oct. 11, when the vice presidential debate will take place in Danville, Ky. At that point we’re pretty sure Ryan will bring it up again. Maybe even in his opening statement.
Do presidential debates sway voters? Or are they political entertainment that just affirm electoral choices Americans have already made?
Mitt Romney hopes they’re the former. He and his campaign are looking to Wednesday night’s debate in Denver as a way to overcome President Obama’s stubborn lead in the polls. Romney supporter Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey has gone so far as to predict that the outcome of the verbal tussle will turn the race upside down.
If so, that will be out of step with the historical trend, say some pollsters and political scientists.
Gallup, for instance, has gone back through a half century of its polling results and found only a few examples of presidential debates that made an impact on election outcomes.
There have been nine sets of presidential debates since 1960, points out Gallup. (Lyndon Johnson refused to debate in 1964, and Richard Nixon followed suit in 1968 and 1972.) In only two of these nine political cycles did the candidate who trailed prior to the debates come from behind to win.
And those two were perhaps the most famously close elections of the past 60 years. In 1960, then-Vice President Richard Nixon was up by one percentage point when he met Sen. John F. Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate on Sept. 26. By the time of the fourth debate, in late October, Mr. Nixon trailed Senator Kennedy by four points.
Ultimately, Kennedy won the popular vote in 1960 by 0.2 percentage points.
In 2000, then-VP Al Gore led George W. Bush by eight percentage points right before their first debate, in October, according to Gallup’s records. The first three days after the event, Gallup polls showed the race tied.
Mr. Gore came back a little bit prior to the next debate, only to fall back again. The same pattern held for the third debate. Ultimately Mr. Bush prevailed in an election so close it was, in essence, decided by a Supreme Court ruling.
“The debates were less likely to be catalyst events in years when one candidate was a strong front-runner, including 1984, 1988, and 1996,” writes Gallup analyst Lydia Saad.
The reasons for that are fairly obvious, according to George Washington University associate professor of political science John Sides. Presidential candidates tend to be fairly evenly matched in terms of capability, preparation, and political experience. Over a series of debates, neither is likely to be able to dominate the other so thoroughly that undecided or wavering voters will judge them a superior possible president.
Even if polls do move during a debate period, it can be hard to determine whether the debates themselves were the cause of the movement, or whether they were the result of other events, such as overseas crises or economic troubles.
“What history can tell us is that presidential debates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what decide the game itself,” writes Mr. Sides in an article on debate effects in the Washington Monthly.
But “rarely” isn’t the same as “never." And it’s possible that 2012 could be an outlier in this historical data set.
First of all, the election is close. It’s close enough so that one stray gaffe might send just enough voters fleeing to the other guy. And the media environment surrounding the debate is different as well. The Twitter-fueled political news cycle is faster and more ferocious than ever, meaning that any perceived victor or loser could find their gain or loss exaggerated by the sheer volume of media hype.
Don’t think so? We’ve got one word for you: “oops." That’s what Texas Gov. Rick Perry said when he fumbled an answer in a GOP primary debate, if you recall. It’s true that wasn’t a general election debate, but if any single moment sealed a candidate’s fate this cycle, that was it. Governor Perry never recovered.
Donald Trump got to play secretary of State during his weekly appearance Monday on “Fox & Friends." Like many people, the Donald is upset about the fact that the Obama administration took so long to admit that the attack in Benghazi, which killed US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans, was an organized terrorist assault.
“Well, it really is a debacle and it really is a shame and normally you would say ‘fire,’ " said Mr. Trump, referring to the act of firing people, a subject on which he’s a world expert.
As to the belated and conflicting statements by Obama officials after the attack, which generally held that it had been inspired by an anti-Islamic movie made in the US, Trump said they were lies.
“They’ve been lying for years now, they get away with it, and the press allows them to get away with it,” Trump said.
Then he got wound up and launched into a classic Trump rant about the Libyan situation.
First, he laid blame for the assault on the entire group of rebels who toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Quaddafi. That’s sure what it sounded like, anyway.
“We helped the rebels ... and they end up killing our ambassador, and other people. And we shouldn’t be in a situation like that,” said Trump.
This ignores the fact that the “rebels” are a loose coalition of many different militias and political groups whose biggest political problem now may be trying to find a way to knit together to form a workable government. According to a story in this morning’s New York Times, witnesses in Benghazi have identified the attackers as members of Ansar al-Shariah, a local Islamist militant group.
Then, Trump got to the root of the problem: By contributing to an international air-cover effort, we intervened when we shouldn’t have. Or we didn’t do it right, or back the right people, since they’re against us now.
“What [the administration] did in Libya was insane. Who are we protecting? Probably we were on the side of Iranians who wanted to take over Libya,” he told "Fox & Friends" hosts.
Let’s back up to February of last year. Trump, as part of his recurring series of short videos entitled “From the Desk of Donald Trump," recorded a short and at the time seemingly heartfelt plea for the US to intervene in Libya to stop Qaddafi from killing civilians.
“We have to go in to save these lives ... it’s horrible what’s going on,” said Trump back then.
OK, back to today. Actually, there’s more consistency then you’d think between his stance then and his stance now, because both times Trump said that what should really have happened is that the US should have received half of Libya’s oil in payment for its help in ousting Mr. Qaddafi.
“I’ve said it from Day 1, if we’re going to help them, take 50 percent of the oil. They would have agreed to it in two seconds. Now, they view us as an interloper,” said Trump.
At another point, he upped the amp several notches, adding that “it used to be, to the victors belong the spoils. We’re the victor, we get nothing because ... we’re run by stupid people."
Funny, we thought it was the Libyan rebels themselves who captured Tripoli, not the US Marines. In any case, this taking-half-of-their-oil thing is something Trump has raised in other contexts, such as Iraq. Would these other nations really give up half those revenues as easily as Trump surmises? We doubt it.
In the minutes and days immediately following Wednesday's presidential debate in Denver – the first of four general-election debates on the calendar – expect the spin to come fast and furious.
The No. 1 question that will be asked – and answered, in differing ways: Who won?
According to some civic groups, though, that isn't the most interesting or even the most important aspect to come out of the debates.
In a wide-reaching discussion Monday with journalists and academics – including veteran broadcast journalist Sander Vanocur, who served as a panelist in the first Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960 – the Newseum's First Amendment Center and the National Communication Association explored what else citizens watching the debates should look for to get the most insight into the candidates.
Some of their tips:
- Watch with people who have different politics from you, so you can get their take on how each candidate is doing, rather than just seeing the debate through the lens of your own biases.
- Do a little homework on the issues before watching so you don't have to take what the candidates say as truth (and be prepared to fact check afterward at one or more of the reputable fact-checking sites out there).
- Try to weigh which candidate has a greater grasp of the facts and information, and how honest they are.
- Watch the candidates' nonverbal cues as well as their verbal ones. (Remember Al Gore's famous sighs from his first debate against George W. Bush? Or how often the first President Bush checked his watch in his debate against Bill Clinton?) How well do the nonverbal signs match what they're saying? Is there a lot of sneering going on as the other person speaks?
- Watch how well the candidates walk the line of being polite, without backing down. This is the first time sharing the stage amid a particularly acrimonious campaign, with negative ads on both sides, but most voters don't want to see signs of personal antipathy in the debate.
Things have changed a lot since the first modern presidential debate was held between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 (and not again until 1976). Back then, Mr. Vanocur remembered, he got just two days notice that there would be a debate and he'd be asking some questions.
Much has been made since then of the role the debates had in that election – and particularly the lack of awareness on the part of Mr. Nixon and his team as to how appearance and visuals would factor into the public's perception – though recent studies have shown that, at the time, the appearance story didn't dominate coverage of the debate, notes Kathryn Olson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Instead, the suggestion that what really mattered in the debate was Nixon's clothes and his lack of makeup has been amplified and simplified over the years.
But debates can matter a lot. And, in many ways, seem to be riskier for incumbents, even though conventional wisdom says that an incumbent has an advantage, bringing the weight of the presidency with him to the stage.
Since 1976 – when debates started to be held every presidential election cycle – three incumbents have been defeated, notes Ms. Olson: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush. In contrast, just two incumbents – William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover – lost their reelection bids in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.
And certain moments have emerged as game-changers.
There's Michael Dukakis's all-policy response when asked whether he'd seek the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife – cementing his "wooden" image. The question, agreed most of the Newseum panelists, was an unfair one – either Mr. Dukakis had to flip-flop on his death-penalty stance or be portrayed as passionless – but he could have criticized the question or showed his passion and anger before explaining why he still opposed the death penalty.
And then there's that indelible moment from the Carter-Reagan debate when Ronald Reagan, who smiled through Jimmy Carter's attack on his Medicare record, responded by saying, "There you go again" – creating what became a defining phrase of the 1980 election.
Afterward, said Vanocur, most voters probably forgot the context of Mr. Reagan's comment. "You only knew it was devastating," Vanocur said.
Reagan's smile also had the effect of casting doubt on Mr. Carter's words even before Reagan responded, said Charlton McIlwain, a New York University professor. On Wednesday, Professor McIlwain says, he'll be watching to see how each candidate comes across as they ake their own attacks and react to each other under pressure.
Will they keep up the angry attacks they've made in ads? And how will they respond (silently, even before they are allowed to answer) to attacks their opponent makes?
With a president of color facing off against a white challenger, there are other minefields both will need to avoid, said McIlwain. Romney needs to avoid appearing arrogant – and refrain from the sort of belittling comment John McCain made in 2008 when he pointed at Obama and called him "that one," which many people interpreted through a racial lens.
And Obama needs to avoid making any sort of reference to race an an excuse for anything – which probably means not broaching the subject at all, says McIlwain.
How high are the stakes for Mitt Romney in this Wednesday’s debate?
Well, here’s one increasingly talked-about scenario: If Mr. Romney fails to deliver a good (perhaps even great) performance, he may face more than just bad reviews. He could begin to see an exodus on the part of his major donors and other supporters – who may choose to put their money in the final month toward what they see as more winnable contests in the Senate and House.
Mr. Rove runs American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, two of the best-financed super PAC/issue advocacy groups, which have so far lent crucial support to Romney by placing big ad buys on his behalf in swing states. According to a private presentation that Rove gave to donors in August, reported on by Bloomberg Businessweek, outside groups like his single-handedly prevented Romney from being crushed by President Obama’s campaign over the summer. Between mid-May and the end of July, Rove said, Mr. Obama’s campaign spent $111 million, to Romney’s $42 million. But Democratic outside groups spent just $18 million, whereas Republican groups like Rove’s spent $110 million.
In addition to offering financial support, Rove has been an unwavering vocal backer, offering strongly pro-Romney commentary during his appearances as an analyst on Fox News, for example, even during the GOP primary battle (which drew complaints from rival campaigns).
But if Romney continues his slide in the polls – and can’t turn things around following Wednesday’s debate – some are betting that Rove, along with the Republican National Committee and others, may become unwilling to throw good money after bad and may start directing their remaining resources toward down-ballot races instead.
“Karl Rove. Every day, that’s the guy I’d be looking at if I were Mitt Romney,” conservative host Joe Scarborough declared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week. “If Karl Rove decides that this thing is lost at some point, he’s going to spend that money on saving the Republican House and [winning a] Republican Senate. And when that happens, you know, it all goes off the cliff for the Romney campaign.”
There are certainly precedents for this kind of jumping ship. Political handicapper Charlie Cook, in his National Journal column last week, compared the current presidential race to the 1996 contest between President Clinton and Bob Dole. “The next week or 10 days are ... critical for Romney and the GOP,” Mr. Cook wrote. “If things don’t turn around, a stampede could ensue reminiscent of 1996, when Republicans realized that Bob Dole was not going to defeat President Clinton. History could repeat itself.”
On the other hand, several factors may make this a harder decision for Romney’s backers than it was for Mr. Dole’s. For one thing, Romney is not nearly as far behind in the polls. In the fall of ’96, most polls showed Dole trailing Clinton by roughly 20 points, whereas Romney is currently trailing Obama by low to mid-single digits. Given the current polarization of America, even if Romney fails to close the gap in coming weeks, it seems unlikely that the bottom would ever completely fall out for him.
And to some extent, it was probably always in Rove’s game plan to put more money into Senate and House races toward the end of the campaign. Unlike the presidential contest, where opinions can get set pretty early in the cycle, voters are less likely to pay attention to down-ballot races until the final weeks. So in those races, last-minute ad spending can have an outsize impact.
In the August presentation for donors, Rove said he planned to spend $200 million on the White House, $70 million on Senate races, and $32 million on House races.
The real question, though, is to what extent those numbers begin to shift. Even a relatively small move of resources away from Romney could have a big effect – both financial and psychological – for both sides. If Rove were to begin withdrawing support, it would send a signal that the race was probably over. Which means, for now, all eyes will remain on Rove. As an anonymous Democratic strategist memorably put it to Politico recently, “It ain’t over until Karl Rove sings.”