The instant analysis of this first presidential debate has been remarkably uniform: On style points, Mitt Romney won handily.
He'd clearly prepped hard and had mastered the basics of Presidential Debating 101:
- Look into the camera (or alternately at the foe you're attacking)
- Look confident, but not arrogant
- Speak crisply
- Pepper your answers with the stories of real people
- Use three- to five-point lists to mount attacks and appear to be well-informed.
For his part, Barack Obama seemed either tired, overly cautious or underprepared for a sharper, bolder opponent.
Still, this was only Round 1. There's more to come. My guess is Romney will close the polling gap, but he's certainly not sold the American public yet on his politics or personality.
One 90-minute performance doesn't do that.
Nonetheless, with three debates to go, first Vice-President Joe Biden and then the president have to stop Romney-Ryan from building on Tuesday night's momentum.
Here's how (forgive me that my own list has but four points; I am looking straight into the camera):
1. Remember debate basics
For Pete's sake, Mr. President. At least acknowledge that the American public is out there. Even in your closing statement you looked at moderator Jim Lehrer instead of the camera. Half the time, you were looking down -- and rather grimly at that. You also should give crisper answers, drawing more on the people you've met across America. Bill Clinton is a master at this. Maybe he can give you a tutorial so you can substitute a few personal stories for those wonkier broad policy statements that lead viewers to tune out.
Not that I'm giving the governor a free pass on style points. His blow-dried smile likely didn't fool that many folks. And though he was forceful, he remained not terribly likable. As for his newfound concern for the middle-class, it rang a wee bit hollow after his comment that 47 percent of Americans consider themselves victims who would just as soon be dependent on government.
But you need to set aside more time to practice your debating style -- and maybe with a practice partner more dynamic than John Kerry.
2. Remind voters who our last GOP president was
You remember the guy: George W. Bush? His name didn't come up once in the first presidential debate. Mr. President, it needs to. This is not an original idea. As pundit after pundit wrote before the debate, you should turn to Romney and say something like, "The policies of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, nearly wrecked our economy, toppled this country from surplus to debt and left us stuck in two wars. Yet you are proposing precisely the same trickle-down-from-the-rich-philosophy he did. Name three ways in which your policies would be any different from his?"
And oh. The next time Romney starts blathering about bipartisanship, perhaps you could remind him that Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell once said that "our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term." Quote the man. His words speak for themselves. This is and was a GOP hellbent on obstructionism.
3. Challenge Mitt Romney to be specific
When people hear numbers such as $5 trillion, their eyes glaze over. Turn to your opponent and ask him: "So, governor. You say you can cut taxes on the rich even further without raising the debt or raising taxes on the middle class. That's quite a magic trick. It certainly isn't math. I'd like you to name three specific loopholes you propose to close to make up just a tenth of the $5 trillion hole your tax plan would leave in the country's economy." Then, when Romney obfuscates or counterattacks, turn to him and say: "Specifics governor. I asked for specifics. But then, you've just made my point."
4. Offer just a taste of audacity and hope
No. Don't use those words again. But it would sure be nice if you could roll out something that you'll do differently next term. It could be as simple as a promise to start weekly virtual town meetings so that you're in regular touch with the American public. Promise to enlist their help in forcing the Republican Party to compromise on some issues. Or perhaps roll out a modest proposal to create a volunteer corps to tutor high school dropouts and legal immigrant adults toward their GED's -- something that builds on your strong suit as an education president. I'll leave the details to you and your staff. There are lots of choices.
But this I'm convinced of, Mr. President. You are not going to get re-elected just by running out the clock, just by avoiding gaffes. As a basketball fan, I think you'd know that.
When teams start holding the ball and walking slowly up court, they often lose.
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