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Lowering Expectations For Romney: Why He Will Flop In The First Debate

Mitt Romney takes the stage before the start of a Republican presidential debate in January. (AP)

Mitt Romney takes the stage before the start of a Republican presidential debate in January. (AP)

Democrats have been trying to drive down expectations on how President Obama will fare in
next week’s debate with former Gov. Mitt Romney.

Robert Gibbs, former press secretary for Obama, said on “Fox News Sunday”:

Mitt Romney I think has an advantage because he’s been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year. He even bragged that he was declared the winner in 16 of those debates. So I think in that sense having been through this much more recently than President Obama, I think he starts with an advantage.

How dare Democrats suggest that Romney has an advantage in debate! That is so unfair. Everyone knows the game here — if you lower expectations for your candidate, it’s easier for him to exceed expectations and be declared the winner.

So while other Republicans are busy criticizing Romney’s campaign, I’ll come to his defense on the debate front by lowering expectations for him.

Here are some of the reasons you should expect that Romney will bomb in this debate:

He didn’t really “win” most Republican debates. His opponents usually lost and then,
in post-debate analysis, Romney was called the winner mainly because he remained
the frontrunner. How could he not prevail when Rick Perry had his “oops” moment or
Herman Cain said “9-9-9” about 999 times?

He has trouble ad-libbing. Debates often turn on spontaneous moments when a
candidate says something poignant or funny. Romney is not good when he’s off-script,
especially if he’s talking about himself. Remember when he tried to relate to an audience
by mentioning that his wife drives a “couple of Cadillacs”? That didn’t even help GM.

His “vague is beautiful” approach to issues makes him vulnerable. When questions
arise about the candidates’ supposed plans for the country, Obama will cite Republicans
who have criticized Romney for not being specific, big or bold. He’ll put him on the
defensive about which tax loopholes he would close — probably saying something
like, “Why won’t you disclose your secret plan to end the mortgage or charitable
deductions?” Romney will deny having any such intent, but his promise to work out
the details of tax reform with Congress will not be reassuring when Congress has a 9 percent
approval rating.

His “47 percent” comments will be mined by Obama throughout the debate. Romney’s controversial remarks at that spring fundraiser will be cited by the president in talking about almost any domestic issue — Medicare, veterans, student loans, welfare, tax reform, economic growth, reducing the national debt… Romney can reiterate that he’s “concerned about 100 percent of Americans,” but it’s not going to stop Obama from working in references – sly digs in some cases — suggesting that Romney is “out of touch” on (fill in the blank).

Obama will also cite Romney’s comments about Israel, Hispanics… and generally imply
that whatever Romney says in debate is not what he has said in private to donors. Expect
Obama to also mock Romney’s defense for his impolitic remarks, that he was “inelegant”
in the way he expressed himself. Obama will probably have a zinger like: “My opponent
was elegant in answering that question, but he was elegantly wrong.”

His business record and tax returns are no-win issues. Romney can’t easily explain every decision made in his long business career. After all, many decisions about downsizing and outsourcing were made for investors, not for public relations. And Obama
will likely question why Romney did not release more than two years of his tax returns
since he reportedly provided 20 years to John McCain’s campaign when he was
under consideration as a possible running mate. Romney says that the Obama campaign
would just try to embarrass him about deductions, etc., but it’s not a winning rebuttal.

He can be surprised by Obama attacks. Romney is criticized for anything he’s ever
done in his life — even transporting his dog on top of the family car during a vacation trip.
But Obama, as incumbent, usually just has to answer criticism of his record for four years
– which he can more easily anticipate. The president has a way of deflecting criticism
by pretending to accept full responsibility. On “60 Minutes” CBS’s Steve Kroft asked
if he bore any responsibility for not changing the tone in Washington. Obama replied,
“Oh, I think that, you know, as president I bear responsibility for everything — to some
degree.”

His supporters are failing to lower expectations. If Romney goes into this debate with
undecided voters expecting a boffo performance, he’s at a terrible disadvantage. He needs
to lower expectations — which cynics might say he’s been doing in recent weeks. But no,
expectations are still too high. Fortunately there’s still one week for his team to at least
convince Romney supporters that he’s sure to flop in debate. That should lift their spirits.

Todd Domke is WBUR’s Republican analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.

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