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Romney’s Lifeline: Debates Matter

Since early last week, the polls have been a string of bad news for Mitt Romney. Both in swing-state polls and in national ones, President Obama is pulling ahead. There may be some nuggets of good news in states like Colorado, but overall, in must-win states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida, things are looking dire for the Republican nominee. Is it time for Romney to radically alter his campaign or its strategy? Is he due for an ad-spending blitz to try to buoy his numbers going into the fall?

Last summer, pundits debated how long it would take Rick Perry to clinch the Republican nomination. Would he sweep every single primary? How long would it take before his opponents just threw in the towel? His peak was mid-September 2011 in the polls, when according to the Real Clear Politics average, he led the next-most popular candidate, Romney, by more than ten points. He had yet to participate in a debate. Perry’s record as governor of one of the most prosperous states in the union brought him to the lead, and unfortunately, Perry’s less-than-stellar performance in debates was what quickly undid his candidacy. By early October, his lead over Romney disappeared, and his popularity only continued to sharply decline until his withdrawal from the race in late January.

There were two defining moments for Perry in the debate cycle. In his premier debate on September 7, Perry came off as far too aggressive in his efforts to be heard above the seven other voices on stage. A few days later, polls began to register the response to the debate and his numbers sank even with Romney’s. The second moment was so painful I muted the television as it was unfolding live. In a debate on November 9, Perry struggled to name all of the governmental agencies he would cut as president and, after he realized he couldn’t, he ended by saying “Oops!” On that debate performance Alana wrote,

A presidential contender forgetting the name of an agency he wants to cut is pretty awful, but momentary memory lapses happen. But as you can see, there were so many escape hatches that other politicians – smoother communicators – would have taken. Perry should have dropped the issue when Paul gave him a chance, moved on, changed the subject and tried to recover. Instead, he stood onstage for almost a full, excruciating minute, fumbling for an answer that never came to him.

If all Perry lacked was substance, he might still be polling in the double digits right now. Look at Herman Cain. Perry’s big problem is that he also lacks style. And in today’s media and political culture, that’s unforgivable.

After that November 9 debate, Perry lost any hope of regaining momentum, and soon he was an afterthought in discussions about the primary in the media. While few people were watching these endless strings of debates, the buzz after them permeated the consciousness of Republican voters. Tales of Perry’s poor debate performance impacted the perception of voters who weren’t even bothering to tune in yet, and soon Newt Gingrich rose on the back of his strong debate performances. Gingrich’s poor campaigning and checkered past couldn’t keep him in the running, but for a brief time in both December and January, he gave Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum a run for their money. Before Perry’s star took off, Tim Pawlenty saw the end of his campaign based on one moment in an early debate: his refusal to call ObamaCare “ObamneyCare” — tying Romney’s healthcare program in Massachusetts while he was governor to ObamaCare. Pawlenty’s nice guy moment put the end to his consideration as a serious contender for the nomination.

The first of three scheduled presidential debates comes in a little over a week. Historically, presidential debates have been unable to move the needle in favor of a candidate; generally the only way a candidate’s future has been decided is through a gaffe. While Romney’s numbers aren’t solid going into them, strong showings in the debates could help turn his campaign around, giving him the buzz necessary to get a boost among voters. Romney’s campaign isn’t failing, but it isn’t going to get him over the finish line first either. Totally revamping his campaign will only show signs of desperation and will surely fail to give the candidate a meaningful jump among voters. Only one thing can save Romney: himself.


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