With only three days to go before the first presidential debate, each campaign is, as Politico points out, already busy trying to depress expectations for their candidate and inflate those for their opponent. That means Democrats are hyping Mitt Romney’s extensive experience and preparation while Republicans are pointing to the president’s reputation as an eloquent orator even if they don’t really believe him to be all that great. But the really interesting items leaking out of the two rival camps is not so much their spin about who should be the favorite or the underdog but the candor about their approaches to the contest.
If the sources for the New York Times’s front-page debate preview story are to be trusted, President Obama seems to be preparing to play it safe on Wednesday night while Romney is going to be trying to win it outright. This may reflect their current standing in the polls, but if the president really is approaching the debate in this manner, it’s a mistake. If he really thinks that he merely needs to show Americans he feels their pain, rather than defend his record, it will allow Romney to seize the initiative. One Democrat quoted in the story says that “the sale has been made … He just needs to reaffirm it. He just needs to not get in the way.” But that approach will set him up as a standing target when what he needs to do is to try demonize Romney.
While one shouldn’t take expectations spin too seriously, the fact that Romney’s spent most of the last winter on the debate hot seat with a gaggle of opponents trying tear him down has to help him be ready for what will come this week. By contrast, Obama has not had to debate anyone in four years, and even then he did not face the kind of concentrated assault in his primaries that Romney experienced.
But perhaps even more important than that is the fact that the debate will subject him to something Obama has rarely experienced since taking the office: a direct and sustained face-to-face challenge from a determined opponent. This president has been largely insulated from questions about his policies. He rarely holds press conferences and generally confines his dealings with journalists to sit-downs with friendly writers. His arrogance has increased the longer he is in office, meaning the debates will be an ordeal for him and a test of his famously cool temperament. While the GOP candidate has reportedly been subjected to grueling insults in his prep sessions from sparring partner Ohio Senator Rob Portman, it is the president who is more likely to show impatience and anger than the affable Romney.
Even more to the point, if Obama believes the polls and demonstrates the kind of over confidence that his supporters have been spouting this last week, it could lead him to think he must only not lose rather than having to win. Just as Americans may not like the fact that much of the media has declared the election over several weeks before the votes are cast, the reaction to a demonstration of Obama’s well-known smugness will be very negative.
Romney is smart enough to know that he can’t play for a tie, especially in a crucial first debate. If the president thinks that’s all he has to do, he’s in for a rude awakening that could create the momentum shift that his party dreads.