What Romney Needs to Do in the Debate

What Romney Needs to Do in the Debate

By Erin McPike - October 1, 2012

Let's set aside the expectations game for Wednesday night's presidential debate, in which each side has puffed up the opponent's supposed skill in the format. And let's forget all the commentary about how much time the candidates have (or have not) spent preparing, studying the way the other stands or the length of answers he's likely to give.

What Mitt Romney needs to accomplish during the Denver face-off has little to do with issuing one-liners or attacking President Obama's policies. Instead, it boils down to his ability to provide specifics about a Romney presidency, and addressing inconsistencies in his positions.

After a barrage of complaints fired at Romney by the broader media, the Obama campaign and even by member of the conservative elite, moderator Jim Lehrer and the president are certain to press the GOP nominee on policy details. Romney has not offered many on the campaign trail, and he has not shown a willingness to do so in his previous, intra-party debates.

This first 90-minute matchup will cover domestic policy. As such, the focus will range beyond Romney’s overarching complaints about the nation’s 8.2 percent unemployment rate and the shaky performance of the American economy. The challenger will likely face a grilling on immigration policy just when he needs to improve his standing among Latino voters, as well as on health care and tax reform.

Immigration has given Romney perhaps the most trouble. He got into a testy exchange last year with Rick Perry when the Texas governor cited illegal immigrants discovered working on the former governor of Massachusetts’s lawn. (Romney didn’t personally hire them, but the company he hired to do the work did; media organizations revisited his home a year after the initial discovery and found that illegal aliens were again working his property.)

A proposal for addressing illegal immigration that he advanced in a later debate drew mockery from some of his opponents as well as other critics: “The answer is self-deportation, which is, people decide that they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.” As some in the Florida audience that night began to laugh, Romney added, “And so we’re not going to round people up.”

Ironically, the GOP challenger has long taken a hard line on the issue, which he used to ding John McCain in 2007 and Perry in 2011. Romney has said he would veto the DREAM Act if he were president, but later suggested allowing a pathway to citizenship for Latinos who have served in the military (which is one of the DREAM Act’s principle tenets). In his own stump speeches, Obama regularly hammers Romney over his opposition to the bill, and he likely will look for an opportunity to do so again on Wednesday night.

Another issue that has bedeviled Romney -- health care reform -- landed him in some of the hottest water of this cycle’s primary. During one debate, Perry pointed to an early edition of Romney’s most recent book, in which the candidate cited the Massachusetts individual mandate to purchase coverage as applicable nationwide. Romney then offered Perry a $10,000 bet that the charge was untrue.

For many of those watching, the exchange spurred two impressions: that Romney is an out-of-touch multimillionaire to whom $10,000 is small change, and that when he is pushed outside of his economy-focused comfort zone, he tends to deflect questions rather than provide solid answers.

That episode notwithstanding, health care is a topic Romney has managed to largely avoid in this election cycle, save to say that he would repeal and replace the president’s signature domestic policy achievement. But his inconsistencies on the subject will surely be placed under a microscope Wednesday. In particular, Romney and his campaign have made some concessions about the attractiveness of universal health care in recent weeks.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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