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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

Vice President Joe Biden greets supporters on Tuesday in Charlotte, NC at The Fillmore. (Jeff Siner/The Charlotte Observer/AP)

Joe Biden says middle class 'has been buried' past 4 years. Oops.

By Staff writer / 10.02.12

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.

The man who would replace Mr. Biden, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, said at a campaign stop in Iowa that Biden’s words show that the nation needs to “stop digging” by electing the Mitt Romney/Ryan ticket.

“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.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks with Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, who has also been his debate practice partner, on his campaign charter plane en route to Denver on Monday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Presidential debates: Game-changers or time-wasters? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.02.12

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.

“When we get to Thursday morning, you’ll be saying it’s a brand-new race with 33 days to go,” Mr. Christie said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation."

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 flashes a thumbs-up to students before speaking at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Sept. 24. (Parker Michels-Boyce/The News & Advance/AP)

How would Donald Trump have handled the attack in Libya?

By Staff writer / 10.01.12

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.

Mike Boswell (l.) and Mike Wymore carry a podium up stairs Monday in preparation for Wednesday night's presidential debate in Denver. (Morry Gash/AP)

Presidential debate: what to look for beyond who wins or loses (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.01.12

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.

Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is seen at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., August 27. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Mitt Romney's debate challenge: keeping Karl Rove on board (+video)

By Correspondent / 10.01.12

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.

In particular, many observers are wondering if Romney could find himself abandoned by one of his highest-profile backers: Karl Rove.

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.”

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a rally at Valley Forge Military Academy and College, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, in Wayne, Pa. (Evan Vucci/AP)

New Romney op-ed hits Obama on Middle East: Is that fair? (+video)

By Staff writer / 10.01.12

Mitt Romney is renewing his attack on President Obama’s policies in the Middle East Monday via an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal. The GOP presidential nominee writes that thousands of innocent people have died in Syrian violence, the Muslim Brotherhood has risen to power in Egypt, the US ambassador to Libya has died in a terrorist attack, and Iran’s mullahs continue to move toward nuclear weapons capability.

“These developments are not, as President Obama says, mere ‘bumps in the road.’ They are major issues that put our security at risk,” writes Mr. Romney.

The ex-Massachusetts governor goes on to complain that, under Mr. Obama, the United States is reacting to events instead of shaping them, and that the current administration has allowed the country’s world leadership to “atrophy.”

The US needs to ensure that there is “no daylight” between itself and Israel on the Iran question, says Romney. And it needs to restore its economy, military strength, and values.

“That will require a very different set of policies from those President Obama is pursuing,” writes Romney.

What’s going on here? Wasn’t the Romney campaign supposed to focus on the economy and how Romney’s business credentials would help him restore US jobs?

Well, perhaps – but that’s not working at the moment, as polls show Romney slipping behind in key states. And the administrations has struggled to explain its actions in regards to the Sept. 11 attack that left US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead in Benghazi. The Obama team initially described the attack as spontaneous; only in recent days has it acknowledged that evidence points to a premeditated terrorist assassination. Over the weekend, The Washington Post reported that security in Benghazi was lax as the US officials underestimated the threat to the US diplomatic outpost there.

“It’s part of a bigger picture of the fact that the Obama foreign policy is unraveling, literally, before our eyes,” said Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan on "Fox News Sunday."

Could highlighting foreign policy actually boost the GOP presidential ticket? After all, polls show that voters generally pick the incumbent over the challenger when asked who would better manage the nation’s foreign affairs.

But the GOP has traditionally owned the defense-and-strength issue, as Democrats traditionally have the edge on social concerns. It’s possible that Romney aides are betting on the resurgence of this attitude. And they’re clearly trying to use Obama’s foreign-policy stumbles to portray him as a weak and amateurish leader in general. They’ve hit that theme for months on domestic issues, to little evident effect in the polls.

Much of Monday’s Wall Street Journal op-ed is devoted to the US relationship with Israel. That could have the upside of appealing to Jewish voters discontented with Obama’s decision not to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he was in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

But it also leaves Romney open to the charge that as president he’d narrow US options by in essence outsourcing US policy on Iran to Israel.

“If Romney wins and the United States supinely follows [Mr. Netanyahu] into yet another, and this time vastly more dangerous, Gulf war, nobody can say we were not warned,” writes liberal Ed Kilgore Monday in the Political Animal blog of the Washington Monthly.

Both campaigns for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are enumerating challenges for their guy ahead of the first presidential debate next Wednesday. (Evan Vucci/AP, Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/AP)

For Obama and Romney, time to play 'The Debate Expectations Game' (+video)

By Staff writer / 09.28.12

Team Obama says Mitt Romney is a fantastic debater.

Obama strategist David Axelrod, channeling former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s praise of Mr. Romney in a memo released Friday morning, hails Romney as “as good as it gets in debating. He is poised, prepared, smart, strategic.”

Just hold your horses, says Team Romney. It’s President Obama who’s the master debater. Mr. Obama is a “universally acclaimed public speaker and has substantial debate experience under his belt,” according to a memo, first reported by CNN, from Romney senior adviser Beth Myers.  

In other words, both campaigns are taking care to tell the press why their candidate is going to stink up the joint next Wednesday at the first presidential debate.

Sound bizarre? That’s because it is.

Right before engaging in the exact political voodoo he’s describing, Mr. Axelrod actually states what both campaigns are doing: “Let’s be honest – both campaigns are trying to set expectations for their candidate's performances.”

If everybody was expecting Romney or Obama to turn up a C performance, the thinking goes, a B- looks pretty good – and a B+ looks great.

So how do you ratchet down expectations? You make the case that the other guy should win.

Romneyworld says Obama beat his 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, at every debate and has seven one-on-one presidential debates under his belt already. The first point is arguable – Obama’s previous debate performances were not exactly shining – but the second is not.

Moreover, Romney wants us to believe that Obama has a massive natural advantage on the debate stage.

“Voters already believe – by a 25-point margin – that President Obama is likely to do a better job in these debates. Given President Obama's natural gifts and extensive seasoning under the bright lights of the debate stage, this is unsurprising,” Ms. Myers wrote.

To the contrary, say Obama’s partisans in Chicago. Running the gauntlet of primary-season debates means the challenger is well-practiced – and remember that Romney took part in nearly two dozen during this election cycle alone. Being elevated to the stage next to the sitting president pays dividends for the challenger, Axelrod contends.

And then there’s the final point that the Obama campaign is driving hard: The president, because he’s the president, doesn’t have a lot of time to prep for the debates.

“The president will have some time to prepare, and he’s been doing some studying. But it is certainly less than we anticipated because of the events in the Middle East, because of his busy travel schedule, because of just the constraints of governing. So it is less than we originally planned,” Jen Psaki, traveling press secretary for the Obama campaign, told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Virginia Beach, Va., on Thursday.

But, of course, that wasn’t enough: “I will just take this opportunity to say that Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has been preparing earlier and with more focus than any presidential candidate in modern history – not John F. Kennedy, not President Bill Clinton, not President George Bush, not Ronald Reagan has prepared as much as he has,” Ms. Psaki continued. “So there’s no question that he will have a lead on how prepared he is.”

How to avoid being caught up in the campaign spin? Listen for what the candidates say about their policy records and what they’d do in office, and study up on the issues that matter most to you. 

Both campaigns also outline the key points they hope voters will hear come Oct. 3.

Axelrod pointed to the value of the auto bailout, Romney’s support for overturning Roe v. Wade on abortion rights, and tax fairness as key concerns for the president during his appearance in Denver.

Myers counters that an emphasis on Romney should clue voters into Obama’s weakness: If you’re an incumbent president railing against the other guy, she argues, what does that say about your own record?

President Obama speaks at Farm Bureau Live during a campaign stop in Virginia Beach, Va., on Thursday. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/AP)

What does President Obama need to do in the debates?

By Correspondent / 09.28.12

On Wednesday, we addressed what Mitt Romney needs to do in next week’s debate. Now it’s President Obama’s turn. The stakes may not be quite as high for him. (As we said, the first debate is shaping up as make-or-break for Mr. Romney.) But it’s still going to be a critical moment for the president.

While Mr. Obama is well known for his ability to move crowds on the stump, debating is a different skill, and one for which he’s demonstrated less of a natural affinity. Not surprisingly, aides have been trying to lower expectations for the debates, saying he’s been working on condensing his responses and trying to be less professorial.

So, what does Obama need to do? Here’s our handy Decoder cheat sheet:

Be the president. Possibly the best line from Obama’s convention speech was this one: “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.” He went on to say he knew what it was like to send young men and women into battle, and to grieve with their parents when they didn’t return. It was a smart way of telling voters that he has gained a unique depth of experience in both foreign and domestic affairs, and that that knowledge would be a huge asset in a second term. Of course, incumbency can be a double-edged sword – when the economy is bad, presidents usually get the blame. But the position itself still has a tendency to elevate whomever holds it, and Obama has shown himself adept at using his presidential stature to make Romney look inexperienced by comparison. 

Be humble. The biggest potential pitfall for Obama may be a tendency to seem arrogant. In 2008, one of Obama’s worst moments came in a debate opposite Hillary Rodham Clinton, when she was asked about the fact that Obama was generally seen as “more likeable” by voters. It wound up being a great moment for Mrs. Clinton (Romney, take note!), who joked, “I don't think I'm that bad.” But Obama couldn’t resist interjecting: “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.” The unprompted dig came across as cocky and condescending – and it cost him with women voters. Likewise, throughout this campaign, Obama has had to walk a careful balancing act: defending his record, but not seeming too proud of it, or implying that he thinks things are better than they actually are. He needs to give voters confidence that he has already taken many steps that are moving the economy in the right direction. And he has to convince them that if reelected, he’ll work even harder to do more.

Channel Bill Clinton. If there’s one thing we learned at the Democratic National Convention, it’s that former President Bill Clinton may in fact be the party’s greatest speaker – at least, when it comes to explaining policy in a conversational, easy-to-grasp manner, without ever seeming to talk down to voters. For all Obama’s soaring speeches, he has never made the case for his own economic policies as well as Mr. Clinton did. Significantly, Obama’s recent gains in the polls seem to be in part a reflection of the fact that voters are suddenly feeling more optimistic about the direction of the economy – and many analysts have speculated that it was Clinton’s convention speech that planted the seeds of this new optimism. The debate offers a great forum for Obama to make Clinton’s arguments his own (and possibly emulate some of his down-to-earth style).

A big advantage Obama has going in to this first debate is that he can play it safe. Because he’s currently ahead, he doesn’t necessarily have to win the first debate outright – though, obviously, a misstep could do serious damage. In fact, many other incumbent presidents have been deemed the “loser” of their first debate (including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) and still gone on to win reelection. On the other hand, a big win for Obama could be crushing to Romney – which means this first debate could present the president with a chance to put the game out of reach. As long as he doesn’t overreach.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at American Legion Post 176 in Springfield, Va., on Thursday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Is '47 percent' comment sinking Mitt Romney's polls? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 09.27.12

It’s been 10 days since Mitt Romney’s now-famous “47 percent” comments became public. Since then countless news stories have chewed over Mr. Romney’s secretly recorded assertion that 47 percent of US voters see themselves as “victims” and are too dependent on government to vote Republican. Are Romney’s words – plus the subsequent media focus – now dragging down his campaign?

Frankly, we’ve been skeptical the “47 percent” stuff would have a measurable effect on the polls. Individual events seldom do, no matter what the cable news chattering clique says. When asked directly, many voters may disapprove of such sentiments, but would that really make them more or less likely to vote Romney? Isn’t it more probable it would just reinforce what they already felt, one way or another?

Yeah, well, we’re reconsidering that now, for two reasons. The first is that Romney’s polls worsened fairly quickly after the comments came out. Take Gallup’s daily tracking poll, which has been a bit more pro-Romney than other national surveys. It’s a seven-day, rolling average of numbers. On Sept. 22, the day its sample consisted of people all contacted after Romney’s words became public, it went from a 46 to 46 percent tied race to a 2 point Obama advantage. Since then it has continued to widen. Yesterday Obama was up by 6, 50 to 44 percent.

As Josh Marshall, the generally liberal editor of TalkingPointsMemo, notes: That doesn’t really prove anything. “But the correlation is extremely tight.”

Looking at national poll averages, plus polls in the key states of Ohio and Florida, George Washington University associate professor of political science John Sides sees a 1 percent swing to Obama from the day before the “47 percent” became public to Sept. 23.

“How confident am I that this 1% shift is due to 47%?” tweeted Mr. Sides, who previously has been skeptical of the comment’s immediate political effects. “Maybe 30%.”

But whatever the numbers say, it’s clear that the campaigns think the “47 percent” stuff could be electoral kryptonite. That’s our second reason. Look at what both campaign teams are actually doing: putting up ads that either highlight (Obama) or explain away (Romney) those fundraiser words.

Friday, for instance, the Obama campaign has released a new 30-second spot it claims will run in swing states. It contains nothing but Romney’s own words. While photos of US workers fade in and out, Romney talks about the 47 percent feeling entitled to “health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

The Romney campaign, for its part, has released a one-minute, "Too Many Americans” spot that highlights the ex-Massachusetts governor’s assertion of compassion.

“More Americans are living in poverty than when President Obama took office, and 15 million more are on food stamps,” says Romney, looking straight into the camera. “President Obama and I both care about poor and middle class families. The difference is my policies will make things better for them.... We should measure compassion by how many people can get off welfare and get a good-paying job.”

Of course, there are only a few weeks now until the election. At this point, the Romney campaign probably did not think it would still have to devote time and money to “Message: I care” ads, to paraphrase President George H. W. Bush.

Ann Romney appears on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in Burbank, Calif., Tuesday. (Paul Drinkwater/NBC/REUTERS)

Ann Romney on Jay Leno: How did she do?

By Staff Writer / 09.26.12

Ann Romney was on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” Tuesday for what NBC billed as her first late-night talk show appearance. So how’d the wife of the GOP presidential nominee do, keeping in mind that she’s a much less experienced television campaigner than first lady Michelle Obama?

We’ll agree with Bloomberg News columnist Margaret Carlson here – we think she did fine.

“Ann Romney had a smooth go of it on Tuesday night, contrary to some recent appearances when her beautiful façade showed some cracks,” writes Carlson Wednesday.

Cracks? Carlson’s perhaps referring to an incident when Mrs. Romney snapped back at GOP critics, telling them to “stop it,” during a Radio Iowa interview last week.

Some commentators thought that showed the stress of the campaign might be reaching her. And Romney herself, coming out of that interview, thought she might have been “a little strong.” That’s the phrase she used when describing her recollection to Mr. Leno Tuesday night.

“But everyone I’ve seen is giving me high fives about it,” she said.

Mrs. Mitt on “Tonight” did not come off with the polish of a seasoned pol. But she didn’t have to. Instead, she showed why a candidate’s spouse today may be their most important surrogate campaigner – as does the first lady during her own TV turns.

First, the spouse gets to repeat key talking points without having to provide detailed backup info. Asked by Leno about her husband’s comments at a fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans believe they’re “victims” and are mired in government dependency, Romney said, “You don’t like those things to get misinterpreted.... We care about the 100 percent.... Two things about Mitt: He cares, and he’s competent.”

We mean no disrespect by pointing out the high likelihood that Romney staffers asked Romney to repeat the words “cares” and “competent” as many times as possible. And on a late night show, it’s unlikely you’ll get asked to unpack those assertions and say more specifically what they mean.

Romney also got in a good plug aimed at the women’s vote. When insisting that she’s behind her husband’s run 100 percent – despite having made a video in 2008 in which she looked into a camera and told Mitt she’d “never do this again” – she said that her husband had the skill to help people hurt by today’s bad economy.

“Especially women. More women are slipping into poverty,” she said.

But the real virtue of spouses on the stump is their ability to humanize the candidate, of course, and it’s here that Romney does best. On “Tonight” she referred to the time Mitt helped a dying boy organize his affairs. She talked about his “playaholic” ways with their five boys when they were young. She talked about how they met, and managed to say he wasn’t a good dancer without really saying it.

“You know, Jay, he’s gotten to be a better dancer,” was what she said.

She admitted that she used to dress the boys for church the night before, so they could just pop out of bed and race to the car. And she described her husband as “cheap” – a fan of Costco, somebody who turns off the water heater when they leave the house, and sometimes forgets-on-purpose to turn it back on.

“He says, ‘Cold showers are not that bad,’ ” she said.

Leno even showed a photo (which the campaign must have supplied) of a checklist taped in the basement of the Romney house that shows what needs to be done prior to leaving on trips, including “take out garbage” and so forth.

Will voters buy this about someone who’s building a car elevator? Well, depending on which way they’re already leaning, they won’t, or they will. The real question may be why nobody heard about this list before they heard about the car elevators, and other evidence of Romney’s wealth.

Romney’s “Tonight” appearance is the first of a round of scheduled TV interviews, but there’s a case to be made they come too late. Her husband’s now falling behind in key swing state polls. Survey show voters find the incumbent more likeable and more empathetic than his GOP challenger.

An earlier blitz of Romney family appearances might have done more to counteract these trends. If not Mrs. Romney, who has health challenges, then what about the boys? All five appeared on “Conan.” They were fine, too – and we bet every other late-night show would have been glad to host them. In July.

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