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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. 

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.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally on Wednesday in Westerville, Ohio. (Jay LaPrete/AP)

Polls show Obama with big leads in Ohio, Florida. Could they be wrong? (+video)

By Staff writer / 09.26.12

Polls out Wednesday show President Obama with big leads in the key states of Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. That’s been kind of a recurring story in recent days, hasn’t it?

The Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times surveys have Mr. Obama ahead of GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 53 to 43 percent in Ohio, 53 to 44 percent in Florida, and 54 to 42 percent in the Keystone State.

“Gov. Mitt Romney had a bad week in the media and it shows in these key swing states,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a statement. “The furor over his 47 percent remark almost certainly is a major factor in the roughly double-digit leads [of] President Barack Obama .... The debates may be Romney’s best chance to reverse the trend in his favor.”

Well, we’ve got a couple things to say about these surveys. The first is that they’re more pro-Obama than the RealClearPolitics rolling average for these states, at the moment. As of Wednesday, this broader measure has Obama up by 5.2 percentage points in Ohio, 49.3 to 44.1 percent; 3.1 points in Florida, 49.2 to 46.1 percent; and 8.3 points in Pennsylvania, 50 to 41.7 percent.

Our second comment is that it’s likely there is more than the “47 percent” stuff at work here. As we’ve written before, studies generally show that such individual moments move the polls little, if at all. It’s just as likely that there’s a larger attitudinal shift occurring into which the “47 percent” feeds.

That shift might be a generally more positive attitude toward the economy in these states, if not the nation as a whole. As Mr. Brown of Quinnipiac notes, their new surveys show respondents split down the middle as to whether they are better or worse off than four years ago.

“If voters don’t think they are worse off, it is difficult to see them throwing out an incumbent whose personal ratings with voters remains quite high,” said Brown.

Some political scientists who specialize in election forecasting have long said that America’s economic fundamentals are, on balance, just good enough to allow Obama to squeak to victory. True, unemployment remains very high, but mixed with such other measures as the change in GDP growth quarter-to-quarter, the index of leading economic indicators, and so forth, the overall result is of a slightly brightening horizon.

“Now, there is reason to believe that Obama is not going to get 52 percent or 54 percent of the two-party vote. But I think a broader review of the evidence suggests that the economy is, on balance, slightly favorable for him,” writes John Sides, George Washington University associate professor of political science, on the Monkey Cage political science blog.

Finally, there's this question: Is it possible the polls are all wrong? That’s been an increasingly popular theme among conservatives in recent days. Their basic complaint is that many recent polls oversampled Democrats – in other words, included more of them than will actually vote in November.

Conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt hits this point Wednesday on his blog. He says the Quinnipiac swing-state poll results show a Democratic turnout advantage of 9 percent in Ohio, 11 percent in Florida, and 12 percent in Pennsylvania.

“Utter nonsense in other words, designed by who knows who for the purpose of collecting a check and generating a headline,” he writes.

Pollsters reply that party ID as measured in polls is fungible, and depends in part on which candidate voters favor; that Democrats do outnumber Republicans in the United States; and that polls conservatives point to as more accurate, such as Rasmussen, don’t include cellphones and thus miss many minorities and young people.

“It’s not stretching. That’s statistics and mathematics. I’m not making this stuff up,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, in a discussion with Mr. Hewitt on this subject earlier this month.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (r.) speaks as vice presidential running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin looks on during a campaign rally on Tuesday, Sept. 25, in Vandalia, Ohio. (Evan Vucci/AP)

What does Mitt Romney need to do in the presidential debates? (+video)

By Correspondent / 09.26.12

How crucial will next week's presidential debate be for Mitt Romney? Well, there seems to be near-universal consensus that it represents his last, best shot at turning around the race. Amazingly, it isn't just pundits saying this – but also Mr. Romney’s own advisers, who, rather than lowering expectations, have been telling reporters that the debate will, indeed, shake things up, while predicting a win for their candidate. (How's that for pressure?)

Of course, historical evidence shows that debates seldom affect the outcome of presidential elections. Even the most memorable debate moments wound up having little to no impact on the polls.

On the other hand, as Democratic strategist Bob Shrum points out in The Daily Beast, history also shows that "in the first debate, against an incumbent president, a challenger tends to win." In fact, it's happened five of the past six times (the exception being Bob Dole, who failed to score a win against President Bill Clinton). 

If Romney can win his first debate against President Obama and move the polls even a point or two back in his direction, it would certainly help. So what does Romney need to do when he faces off against the president on Oct. 3? Here’s a quick Decoder cheat sheet:

Be specific. One of Romney’s biggest problems in this campaign is that voters still don’t seem to have a clear grasp of how he would fix the economy. Although Romney has released, at different stages, a 59-point plan and, more recently, a five-point plan, he’s come under fire for skipping key specifics – such as how he would pay for his proposed tax cuts. If Romney could present voters with a few new details that go beyond broadly outlined concepts and platitudes, it might go a long way toward convincing them that he, not Mr. Obama, would be the best man suited to the economic task at hand.

Be surprising. Because he’s currently losing, Romney has to find a way to “win” the debate outright – which means a solid, “safe” performance won’t be enough. He needs to leave a big impression on viewers, and make clear that Obama is more vulnerable than it seemed. To do that, he probably has to pursue a line of attack that catches Obama off guard (and hope that he wins the subsequent exchange). Because Romney can’t afford to alienate any swing voters, it's also critical that whatever attack he launches seems fair – so, nothing personal. If it's an area where the press might actually side with Romney, that would help, too. And if he can find a way to sink the knife in with a smile, so much the better.

Be self-deprecating. Remember Ronald Reagan saying he wouldn’t hold his opponent’s youth and inexperience against him? A line like that can go a long way toward undercutting a supposed weakness, while at the same time, showing viewers that the candidate has a sense of humor. There's a long list of things Romney could poke fun at about himself, from his taxes to his stiff demeanor to his dog. If he can pull it off, it could give him a new way to connect with voters – another area where he has struggled.

As we said, it may not be enough to catapult Romney into the lead. But if it can give him even a tiny bump in the polls, then he’d go into the next debate with momentum and the sense that Obama may be in trouble. That’s a position he’d certainly like to be in.

Former President Bill Clinton introduces Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the Clinton Global Initiative Tuesday in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Why is Mitt Romney saying nice things about Bill Clinton? (+video)

By Staff writer / 09.25.12

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said nice things today about Bill Clinton, despite the latter’s rip-roaring anti-Republican speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Speaking before the Clinton Global Initiative, Mr. Romney made a rueful reference to that address, saying, “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.”

Then he went on to praise Mr. Clinton’s post-White House career. “President Clinton has devoted himself to lifting the downtrodden around the world,” said Romney. “One of the best things that can happen to any cause, to any people, is to have Bill Clinton as its advocate. That is how needy and neglected causes have become global initiatives.”

Wow. Why the amity, considering recent political history?

The first answer is obvious: This wasn’t the time or place for renewed combat. Romney was outlining his ideas about foreign aid in front of an audience of international charitable contributors. Seriousness was the order of the day.

And Romney supplied that. His speech, during which he outlined a proposed aid program called “Prosperity Pacts,” was well received. NBC’s Garrett Haake on First Read called it “perhaps his most detailed presentation of how the United States might interact with the developing world in a Romney administration.” 

Politico’s Maggie Haberman went further, calling it “one of Romney’s best-prepared, and best-delivered, speeches of the campaign.”

The address extolled the nobility of work and the power of free enterprise to lift people out of poverty. Romney’s proposed Prosperity Pacts would entail working with the private sector to identify barriers to trade, investment, and entrepreneurship in developing nations. In return for lifting those barriers, nations would receive a US aid package focused on developing a business-friendly infrastructure and on helping small- and medium-sized businesses.

This public Romney sounded far more compassionate than the man seen on a secret video at a fundraiser describing 47 percent of Americans as people who see themselves as “victims” and are overly dependent on government aid.

“Ours is a compassionate nation,” said Romney at the Clinton Global Initiative. “We look around us and see withering suffering. Our hearts break.”

Of course, to be overly political about it – and that’s what we do – a second reason for Romney to be generous would be his campaign’s continued attempt to use Clinton as a wedge to splinter President Obama’s electoral coalition.

The Romney campaign has portrayed the Clinton presidency as a model of budget-balancing and welfare reform, as compared to the big-government Obama White House. Hence the Romney welfare ads which claim that Obama is ending Clinton’s welfare-to-work requirements. (Independent fact checkers have judged those ads to be false.)

Clinton has been vociferous in his defense of Obama, though, as his convention speech showed. In that sense, the Romney triangulation strategy isn’t working – the Big Dog has not been lured into saying new critical things about the guy who beat his wife for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Last, this could be Romney’s “no mas” moment. Like boxer Robert Duran, who uttered that phrase to stop his 1980 championship bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, Romney may just want to avoid goading Clinton into renewed attack.

Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan waves to supporters from a bus, Monday, Sept. 24, at the Veterans Memorial Civic & Convention Center in Lima, Ohio. (J.D. Pooley/AP)

Is Mitt Romney's Ohio bus tour a waste of his time?

By Correspondent / 09.25.12

Should Mitt Romney really be spending any more of what little time he has left in Ohio? 

We ask this as Mr. Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, embark on a three-day bus tour in the Buckeye State (actually, it’s a three-day tour for Mr. Ryan; Mr. Romney is joining the tour a day late).

Yes, Ohio has long been seen as critical for Romney. At this point, anyone and everyone who follows politics can probably recite the mantra: “No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio." And it’s true that pulling out of Ohio would likely be interpeted as a sign of bigger troubles for the Romney campaign.

But at some point in every election, it becomes clear that certain states regarded as "tossups" are probably lost causes for one candidate or the other. And for some time now, Ohio has not looked good for Romney. President Obama has held a lead in the Buckeye State for many months, and recent polls show that lead is growing. A new Washington Post poll out Tuesday has Obama up in Ohio by eight points – prompting The Post’s political blog "The Fix" to move the state from “tossup” to “lean Obama.”

The reasons behind Ohio’s more Obama-friendly environment range from the auto bailout (which remains popular in a state where one out of eight workers is employed in auto-related jobs) to the fact that Ohio’s economy is actually in better shape than the nation’s as a whole. Romney has also failed miserably at telegraphing the kind of cultural populism that has traditionally boosted Republican candidates among Ohio’s white, working class voters.

All of which makes us wonder if we've reached a point where Romney should just cut his losses and move on? Forget about Ohio, and focus like a laser on the remaining states that polls show he can – and, in fact, absolutely must – win. By which we mostly mean: Florida.

You see, Romney can still win without Ohio. It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s technically doable (he would have to win Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire - all states where current polls show Romney behind, but none of which look quite as bad for him as Ohio). But take Florida out of the equation for Romney, and the math becomes nearly impossible. (Without Florida, Romney has to win all the states listed above, plus Wisconsin, which is looking more and more uphill for him, plus, of course, Ohio – which brings us back to where we started.)

Right now, polls show Romney is also behind in Florida, but not by much – Tuesday's Washington Post poll shows Obama with a four-point lead. And unlike Ohio, where Obama has been strong pretty much throughout the campaign, Florida has actually had Romney in the lead at different times. It’s not hard to envision him regaining an edge there again.

Bottom line: with just over 40 days to go before Election Day, the Romney campaign needs to think hard about how – and where – they’re spending every hour and every dollar. Evidence suggests that these three days in Ohio might be better spent elsewhere. 

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