Romney Holds Advantage Tonight, Regardless of Format

Romney Holds Advantage Tonight, Regardless of Format

By Mark Salter - October 16, 2012

The first thing to know about a "town-hall-style" presidential debate is that it bears as much resemblance to an actual campaign town-hall event as a marble statue does to its animated subject.

Real town halls are usually unscripted and unpredictable and often raucous events. Town-hall debates are orderly, with the questions from the audience screened -- selected to represent questions the moderator would ask if they were doing the questioning. Moderators are likely to reframe some questions and ask their own follow-ups in the language of Sunday morning talk shows. The candidates’ answers are subject to short time limits. The venue is disconcertingly quiet, as the audience is instructed to be unresponsive, with none of the cheers, boos, laughs and groans that are the soundtrack of real town halls.

The only similarities between a real town hall and a town-hall debate: The candidates aren’t physically constrained behind lecterns and they must appear to be responsive to the audience member asking the question. They are free to wander the stage, to approach the questioner or one’s opponent, which can be an advantage for candidates who are relaxed and instinctive public performers (see Bill Clinton) and a disadvantage for those who aren’t (see Al Gore).

The lively and informal atmosphere of real town halls gives candidates more latitude in how they express themselves and the range of emotions they display. Obvious and sometimes not so obvious gaffes are easier to commit in that atmosphere -- and are more costly in our over-chronicled political age. But they are easier to repair on the spot with a little self-deprecating humor.

Gaffes in presidential town-hall debates, even an unthinking glance at your watch, can be fatal with just a few weeks left in the campaign. They’re much harder to repair immediately with humor because you won’t have the comforting reassurance of laughter (comforting to the candidate and to television viewers) from a studio audience that has been told repeatedly to remain silent. Self-awareness and circumspection are much more important in town-hall debates than in real town halls.

Prior to the Denver debate on Oct. 3, I didn’t think the format of tonight’s debate gave either candidate an obvious advantage. Neither man is an instinctive or skilled spontaneous public performer, but neither one is terrible at it either. The president can excel in delivering written and rehearsed speeches, but that talent isn’t particularly useful in a debate. I haven’t noticed a great difference between the candidates’ effectiveness in responding to questions from voters. I think they are both a little better than adequate.

But I think Gov. Romney does have an advantage tonight irrespective of the format, because he doesn’t need to improve on his last performance. A town-hall format necessitates a more animated performance than a debate behind lecterns, and the bar the president set for himself in his curiously lethargic first debate is a very easy one to clear. The press will award Obama the most improved player award no matter how Romney performs.

The president will certainly challenge Romney more than he did the last time out. But somewhat underappreciated in the reviews of their Denver face-off was just how exceptionally Romney performed -- even without benefit of comparison to Obama’s lackluster showing. He managed to prosecute his case against the president not just vigorously but graciously, a difficult thing to do in the stressful and urgent circumstances of a debate, which, had it gone poorly for him, would have probably decided the race for Obama.

Romney’s answers and demeanor were exquisitely pitched to the sensitivities of genuine independents and that small, but hardy, band of undecided voters. Ask Joe Biden, whose vigorous assault in last week’s vice presidential debate evoked Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” how hard it is to attack an opponent without appearing obnoxious to people for whom politics isn’t a passion. If the president mimics his running mate’s style, he will lose tonight’s debate, and probably the election.

Romney needs to avoid both a major gaffe and walking into a cheap shot like Lloyd Bentsen’s “you’re no Jack Kennedy” humiliation of Dan Quayle. I’m sure the incumbent’s team has scripted several forceful rejoinders to familiar Romney attack lines, and I expect Obama to deliver them with faux good humor to avoid appearing like a bully. Romney could reduce his exposure by using different language and attacks than he used in the last debate and on the stump. But if he gets hit hard, he must respond quickly, without appearing rattled -- and do it with a smile.

Romney doesn’t need to elevate his game. He just needs to be as assertive, gracious and unflappable as he was the last time -- not an easy task but one we now know he’s capable of achieving. No matter how improved the president is tonight, he’s unlikely to reverse Romney’s momentum. I believe the last debate changed the race fundamentally. It’s now trending in Romney’s favor. If he can find that sweet spot again, he’ll further reduce the likability gap with his opponent, and I think he’ll be the favorite to be our next president. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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