by Alan Fisher
When Mitt Romney finally goes head-to-head with the man he wants to replace, he needs a great performance. Not just a good performance, a great one.
The Republican Party nominee has invested a lot in the importance of the first presidential debate in Denver and its game changing possibilities. He's cut his campaign schedule down - often to just one event a day - to allow him to rehearse his lines, hone his arguments and perfect his 'zingers'; the short sharp responses he hopes will live long in the memory and damage President Barack Obama.
Romney is behind in the polls, not just nationally but in most of the crucial swing states that will decide this election. He's had a terrible few weeks with a poor convention, an intervention attacking President Obama's foreign policy that was considered ill-judged by senior figures in his party, and the release of a video in which he criticises 47 per cent of the American people as "victims" who are happy to live on government handouts.
And so the debates present the former Massachusetts governor with an opportunity to turn the direction of this contest and convince the independents who have not yet made up their mind, or even wavering Obama supporters, that not only does he have better ideas and a clear vision to lift the US out of its economic problems, but that he would make a better president.
Mitt Romney has produced good debate performances when required. Through the extended and bitter primary process to pick a Republican nominee, he appeared in televised debates with a diminishing band of challengers 19 times. He was poor in some, notably when Newt Gingrich hammered him relentlessly ahead of the contest in South Carolina. To his credit, he recovered and gave a much more assured and combative performance ahead of the Florida primary, which he won, effectively killing Gingrich's southern advances.
The Republicans have defied political conventional wisdom by talking up the importance of the debate and the need for a stellar performance from their candidate. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey who is an early Romney backer and prominent supporter, says his man will reset the campaign with his performance.
Normally, expectations are kept low in the hope of surprising the watching millions. Romney, however, now has to deliver a substantial and significant win – if only to keep the money flowing into his campaign and the volunteers knocking on doors. He will also be aware that voting is now under way in more than half the states and by the time the two candidates meet again, many in key swing state like Florida, Colorado and North Carolina will have already made their decision on who to back.
The result from the matchup will shape the narrative in the days to come, will be pulled apart by the media and set expectations for the next debate.
Romney will get a lift from simply being on the same stage as the president; but then he has to do some damage. Republicans say he will fact-check the president, attacking his record with an unemployment rate stuck above eight per cent and a national debt of $16 trillion. He has to be aggressive, but not disrespectful.
Yet even if he does deliver a tour de force, it may still not matter. A strong showing can shake up a race, but there's no solid proof that a candidate has won the White House because of a debate performance. People talk about 1960 – the first televised debate – and how a young and vigorous John F. Kennedy outshone an ill and sweaty Richard Nixon. Yet controversial vote counting in Illinois perhaps played a bigger part in the final result. And in 1984, Walter Mondale was largely considered to have won the first debate with Ronald Reagan by some distance, but found the polls barely shifted.
Mitt Romney needs to do something impressive to give him the chance of winning the election. And now, the debate may be his best and last chance.
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