Presidential debate preview: how Romney can win it

This is the week journalists will be asking everybody in sight how Romney can change the game by winning the debate Wednesday (spoiler alert – they already are). And the mere fact that they’re asking how Romney can change the game is the clearest indication yet that Romney is losing.

Fact is, my Democratic friends who claim this election is over – Obama’s already won it – are engaged in wishful thinking. Debates can change the election mood. So can 36 remaining days worth of world events, economic reports, and potential gaffes by one candidate or another, even aside from debates.

The odds are overwhelming that the President will emerge from this and the other two Presidential debates just fine. After all, it is, indeed, Mitt Romney who must change the game, not Barack Obama. Obama must only prevent Romney from presenting such a compelling case that voters change their minds and decide to fire the President.

But lest we forget: Ronald Reagan was still trailing Jimmy Carter until after a strong debate showing. Rick Perry was still considered a formidable candidate until the debates. George H.W. Bush was still solidly in “incumbent advantage” mode until he impatiently and ineptly kept glancing at his watch to see how many more minutes he had left to endure the pipsqueak Bill Clinton, until the debates. Some Texans were still under the impression that Kinky Friedman was something more than a second rate jokester until a gubernatorial debate clearly showed that he was actually a third rate one. Debates can, indeed, change the tone.

Here are five ways the election can be re-set to Mitt Romney’ advantage this Wednesday night:

1. Obama, who can get very explainy, can be inordinately explainy this Wednesday. The only politician alive who can get away with explaining government to people is Bill Clinton. The efforts of everybody else to do so is the fastest way known to man to make voters’ eyes glaze over. Obama needs to communicate values and priorities – not assault voters’ ear drums with facts and figures, which in an incumbent protection election sound like excuses. If Obama gets stuck in those weeds, Romney will win the debate.

2. The President must connect to people at an emotional level. Letting his personal annoyance with Romney show through isn’t a good way to do it – it’s more of a way to give voters the impression that Obama is arrogant. The “I deeply care about the future of this country” message Obama needs to convey could well be interrupted by the competing “Mitt, you really annoy the crap out of me and I’d like to squash you like the mosquito you are” negative message Obama will convey if he’s not careful.

3. Mr. Romney could, at long last, focus on the economy in such a compelling way that it captures voters’ attention. Yes, we got to #3 before even approaching a possibility that Romney can control – one of the big problems with the Romney campaign – but the possibility exists. Romney’s camp has said all year that he wants the election to be about the economy, and all year long Romney has instead been veering off chasing pretty butterflies instead. If Romney makes this Wednesday’s debate about the economy, and treats it like the beginning of a continuing process lasting for the duration of the election, instead of treating it like a sound byte he visits from time to time, in between pointless Obama-dinging on other issues, Romney could change the game.

4. Romney could surprise everybody by getting specific about what a Romney administration would look like; he could answer the nagging questions that have been holding back his candidacy. Does his tax plan balance – without doing away with the most popular deductions? Can he actually answer the health care reform question in a way in which he doesn’t appear to be on all sides of the issue? Can he explain why, if he’s blaming Obama on not fixing the economy in 3 years, why he insists it will take him two terms to fix it if he’s elected? Can he explain Medicare and Social Security such that it doesn’t scare the bejesus out of seniors? Personally I think the answer to all these questions is “no, he can’t,” but if he somehow finds a way to do so, it would change the game.

5. Obama could just flat-out screw something up. Obama is not gaffe-free, which is a factor people tend to forget since Romney is a gaffe machine.

But now, after the above five factors are giving Obama voters nightmares, here is the good news: none of the above is likely to happen.

The President knows what’s at stake, and he’s unlikely to seriously misstep. But even if he does, Mr. Romney has had week after week of bad news, and it may well be the case that voters no longer consider him a credible messenger, to the extent that no matter what he says and does, voters could respond with “that makes sense – too bad that guy is full of crap.”

Mitt Romney has invested the last eight years showing voters that he’s still not quite ready for prime time. His history shows that he probably doesn’t have the sheer talent to press the reset button on all those years with one good night this Wednesday.

And that assumption by voters makes it a little more likely that he’ll be able to do it. But only a little.

Here’s the TV schedule this week: I’ll be on Fox News in Austin tomorrow night at 9 pm with a debate preview. Then on Austin’s YNN Wednesday, I’ll be on both before and after the debate with predictions and analysis. And, as always, I’ll be on YNN’s Capital Tonight Thursday night at 7 pm with the whole wrap-up, plus discussion about Jay Root’s new book about Rick Perry.