For Obama and Romney, time to play 'The Debate Expectations Game'

Team Obama characterizes Mitt Romney as a fantastic debater. Team Romney notes the president's public-speaking prowess. Both sides are enumerating challenges for their guy ahead of the first debate, in hopes of then exceeding expectations.

Evan Vucci/AP, Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/AP
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.

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?

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