10/03/2012 12:13 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2012

Mitt Romney Debate: His 2002 Performance Gives Telling Clues

FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in
FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Westerville, Ohio. On the eve of the first presidential debate, the early autumn Republican reviews are in for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, and they are not pretty. In some states, candidates who share the Nov. 6 ballot with the former Massachusetts governor already have taken steps to establish independence from him. Party strategists predict more will follow, perhaps as soon as next week, unless Romney can dispel fears that he is headed for defeat despite the weak economy that works against President Barack Obama's prospects. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney has won only one election in his two-decade political career. And that election changed, quite dramatically, on a high-stakes debate.

The parallels between Romney's 2002 run for governor of Massachusetts and his current White House quest are limited. Romney was a different Republican then, emphasizing moderation on social issues and open-minded pragmatism for a liberal-leaning state.

But as political trajectories go, 2002 provides a template for Romney in 2012. Then, as now, he dealt with a deficit of trust among women, calls to release tax returns and questions about his years in private equity. Over an intense monthlong period featuring five debates, he persevered. And for those Republicans worried about the current state of the presidential race, a look back offers some relief.

The Huffington Post watched the full footage of all the 2002 debates available in CSPAN archives, reviewed hundreds of newspaper articles, and conducted interviews with several key gubernatorial campaign players, in hopes of getting a clear sense of what worked for Romney and what didn't. Several conclusions were reached.

For one, Romney improved with experience. His breakthrough against Democrat Shannon O'Brien didn't come in the early debates, but only after tinkering with his approach. Moreover, he was able to catapult into the lead by being perceived as the victim, not by playing the role of aggressor.

During the first debate, on Sept. 24, Romney presented himself as a political outsider eager to apply a fresh, business-savvy touch. Then, as now, tax returns came up, with Romney explaining that he valued his privacy too much to release them. "I made more money than I expected," he said. "But I am in this race not because of money, but because I want to make sure Beacon Hill works for people who don't have money."

Throughout the debate's 17 questions, Romney came back to that theme repeatedly. "I'm not in this race because of rich people," he said in his closing statement. "Rich people can take care of themselves."

The line is almost identical to what Romney has said in 2012 -- save when captured on hidden camera. But for the most part, in the 2002 debate, it didn't move the dial. Both campaigns left that night believing that Romney came across as too timid. "He was very stiff," O'Brien recalled in an interview. "He didn't quite know what to make of me. ... I was taking it to him pretty strong. He seemed unsure of himself."

[HuffPost Live will stream the debate tonight at 9 p.m. ET. Click here for more information.]

Dwight Robson, O'Brien's campaign manager, remembered Romney making headway by playing up his outsider status. But he felt that his candidate got the best of the night. "Our goal had to be to knock him off his prepared lines," Robson explained.

Romney had tasked Beth Myers, his longtime aide, to play a sharp, no-nonsense O'Brien during practice sessions. And in those sessions, he prepared for tough barbs. But even then, he was wary that pushing back too hard would produce a Rick Lazio moment, when the New York Republican infamously invaded Hillary Clinton's space during their 2000 Senate debate.

"As a Republican man, you got to be careful," recalled one paid staffer from Romney's 2002 campaign. "It's almost like [Romney] had to take one for the team in that first debate. She beat him pretty good. I think he was a little stunned."

A Boston Globe poll on Sept. 29 had O'Brien with 42 percent of the vote, compared with Romney's 36 percent.

On Oct. 1, 2002, the two candidates met again in a debate moderated by Judy Woodruff. Twenty three questions produced few memorable results. Romney, asked if he would pay $1 million if he left the governor's chair for higher office before his term ended, joked that the check "would bounce anyway." O'Brien, perhaps overconfident, called for additional debates, to which Romney replied that viewers would be "bored to tears."

The reviews were mixed. Romney, wrote the Boston Herald, was "mostly reluctant to fire back." Even his advisers, it wrote, said he had "failed to hammer home his [reformer] campaign theme." The Globe gave Romney kudos for doing better at "relating to average people's problems."

But internally, the Romney campaign was starting to panic. His inner circle organized an all-staff meeting at the candidate's Belmont home. Over Domino's Pizza (a Bain company), they plotted a change in debate strategy. The staffer likened it to the kind of meeting corporations give before announcing layoffs.

"People are calling you a wimp. Now, you got to fight for yourself," was the gist, the staffer recalled.

The Globe reported that "after a huddle at his Belmont home," Romney would "shed the posture that at times made him appear the smug, programmed front-runner." Instead, he would be "a much sharper, less gentlemanly candidate."

Around that time, a Suffolk University poll found O'Brien with a "commanding lead" -- 42 percent to 30 percent. "I probably was just physically more energized," O'Brien recalled of those early rounds. "I kind of knew my stuff. I just was comfortable."

The next debate took place on Oct. 9 and was the first to feature the three other minor party candidates. The additions made for a disjointed affair, confusing Romney.

"Carla, I agree," Romney said at one point, addressing, who he thought was, Libertarian candidate Carla Howell. He was actually talking to Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

"He is as warm and fuzzy in person as he is on TV," Stein recalled in an interview with The Huffington Post.

It was a small slip. The next day, the Telegram and Gazette wrote that "Mitt needs an image overhaul to win the race."

And yet, polling started to point to a Romney resurgence, with the University of Massachusetts having O'Brien's lead at 42 percent to 39 percent. His momentum picked up in the next debate -- another meeting of all five candidates -- in which he came off more confident and direct in responding to attacks.

"I'm basically in the investors' Hall of Fame," Romney declared in defending his private equity resume. "A leopard doesn't change its spots," he added, explaining why he felt O'Brien would raise taxes.

"Romney appeared the more aggressive of the two last night and was more focused than he has been in previous encounters," the Globe wrote the next day.

"For the past two weeks, Shannon P. O'Brien has been pummelled on the airwaves by GOP rival Mitt Romney, and last night she looked like it," the Herald added.

O'Brien's camp was getting flustered. Robson said the bigger debates proved tougher for the candidate, who had to fend off attacks on her progressive bonafides from Stein and compete for time with all the others.

And yet, on Oct. 29, the Herald had O'Brien leading 44 percent to 38 percent. Harvard's Institute of Politics had it closer: 41 percent to 39 percent.

The fifth and final debate would be the turning point, underscoring both the breadth of Romney's evolution as a debater and how unpredictable the forums can be.

At the suggestion of Sen. Ted Kennedy, longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum had come in to help O'Brien, though he recalled that she was more than adequately prepared.

"She was pretty clear in her head about what she wanted to do," Shrum said.

But what O'Brien wanted to do ended up backfiring. With Tim Russert moderating, she attacked Romney for flip-flopping, casually joked about having a tattoo when asked why a 16-year-old girl needed parental consent to put ink on her body but not have an abortion, and routinely interrupted Romney's responses.

"Go ahead Tim," Romney complained at one point, "you're going to have to take it over."

"Your effort to try and create fear and deception here is unbecoming," Romnney declared at another.

The O'Brien team pointed to the "unbecoming" line as evidence of a condescending attitude or, worse, sexism. But by the time that the scorecards were handed out, the consensus was that Romney had been victimized.

The Globe, watching the debate with eight residents of Marlborough, told the story in its first sentence: "She drove them crazy here last night. And not in a good way." Five of the eight residents -- who had said they were undecided -- came away supporting Romney. None had positive reactions to O'Brien.

The Globe's editorial page, restating its prior endorsement of O'Brien, called the debate "hardly ennobling." The Lowell Sun, Telegram & Gazette and Herald endorsed Romney. The polls turned drastically. Romney's six-point deficit in the Herald poll became a one-point deficit on Nov. 3. Nearly 44 percent of voters had watched the debate. Of those, Romney enjoyed a seven-point lead.

The Romney team saw the debate as a clear victory, while both campaigns saw the tattoo joke as an O'Brien misstep. "She was done after that," explained one former Romney campaign staffer. Campaign manager Robson said, "She did not look good."

Reflecting on it 10 years later, O'Brien said she regrets that people ever thought she had a tattoo (she doesn't). "I was tired," she added, noting that she had just come from a union rally prior to the debate. "I was bitchy."

She also offered some reflections on Romney that could provide some lessons for Obama in Wednesday's debate.

Romney, she said, had adopted a rope-a-dope strategy, playing tentative through much of the debates before finally punching back at a critical moment. "They wanted me to be tough," she said. "That was a strategy to get me into a conflict. I took the bait. I kept going at him. I don't think that helped me."

It was a bit of political skill from her opponent that neither she or her advisers had expected. "I think [Obama] has to be careful being too negative, too nasty," she said. "He has to be very matter of fact."