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.
“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.