Advice Overload Precedes Romney's Debate

By Scott Conroy - September 27, 2012

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"Debates aren't a game of ‘Jeopardy!’ -- it's not about question-and-answer," O’Donnell said.

The conflicting counsel could become particularly distracting for Romney as he prepares for what might be his last best chance to change the direction of the race: the debate next week with Obama.

According to Bruce Buchanan, a historian of presidential politics at the University of Texas, Romney would be wise to largely ignore much of the advice coming from his right flank as he seeks to win over the independents and previously undecided voters who have swung to Obama recently after having voted for him in 2008.

“He’s up against someone the country likes personally more than they like him,” Buchanan said. “I think what Romney could do is strike a reasonable tone, rather than the aggressive tone he displayed when debating against Republicans, which would help humanize him.”

In an interview that aired Sunday on “60 Minutes,” Romney told CBS News’ Scott Pelley that his campaign “doesn’t need a turnaround.” In addition, top campaign officials continue to insist publicly that the GOP nominee remains on track to win a neck-and-neck race.

But with Romney falling farther behind in a host of new swing-state polls released this week and trailing Obama nationally by 4.0 percent in the latest RCP Average, the temptation for him to swing for the fences at the first debate likely will be strong.

Though the need for him to change the race’s dynamic remains apparent, the peril of trying to do too much too quickly is evident in recent presidential political history: There are no examples of a candidate using a single debate performance to turn a lagging effort into a come-from-behind victory.

Romney’s best bet, Buchanan suggested, is to lay out his overall case in a manner that is designed to make inroads incrementally, rather than attempting to do it all with a memorable sound bite or a well-timed cutting remark.

“You can work on your negatives and you can try to portray a plausible alternative,” Buchanan said. “Even if it’s a very clever, classic putdown such as Lloyd Benson’s putdown of Dan Quayle, those things are not usually game changers so much as they are entertainment makers. So I don’t think there’s any way to hit a home run in that sense.” 

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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