10/01/2012 04:48 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

"Is He One of Us?" The Only Real Issue in the Debates

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful... They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are...

- "The Rich Boy" (1926), F. Scott Fitzgerald

Not all rich politicians fail the "Is He One of Us?" test. Nelson Rockefeller, John Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt all convinced us that they had our interests at heart. But in the end, they had to become traitors to their class to prove it.

Mitt Romney is not made this way. He is a Republican. He thinks that we should all get rich, and as nice a notion as that is, it's magical thinking.

In the good old days, when political bosses picked candidates who had the best chance of winning, the central question they thought the voters would ask was:

Is He One of Us?

More and more, the 2012 presidential campaign has turned from a referendum on economic issues -- have Obama's policies worked? -- to a question of comparative trust.

It's not that we want candidates who are just like us, but we ask: Do they really know us? Will they take care of us? Will they fight for us?

Voters don't really care about other issues. Most issues are boring.

Voters have a "what's in it for me?" mindset.

Am I going to get a job? Am I going to keep my job? Will the stock market go up? Will my pensions hold up in the future? Can I afford medical care? Will my kids be able to get job? Who will protect my country best?

And the candidate who can convince voters that he cares, that he is one of them, is the one who will get their votes. The candidate who can tell voters a clear story of what they are going to get and how it's going to help them, is the one who will win.

Presidential candidates -- and all politicians -- are salesman. The number one rule of any car salesman? The customer is always right.

Does he really care about us? Will he take care of us?

Voters believe they can tell this by how candidates look and act under pressure. It all counts -- personal associations, beliefs, character, and statements at private fundraisers. Personal baggage tells a lot, even if it's trivial. Will Romney be able to seize the moment? Fifty million viewers will be watching and 200 million will hear about it from Jon Stewart and the rest of the media and social networks.

As Romney has stumbled from gaffe to gaffe, he seems to have, again and again, lost sight of the critical answers that he has to deliver to win.

One example is the choice of Paul Ryan, which has backfired with loyal senior citizens -- who were once the Republican's most reliable supporters -- and who are now deserting the party over fears of Medicare cutbacks and Social Security.

Another instance of Romney's tone deafness are his "inartful" comments about not caring about the 47 percent of Americans who get money from the government. Lots of people, it turns out.

Neither candidate is really a good debater. Despite Obama's vaunted oratory skill, in debates the president rambles and becomes professorial. Romney seems uncomfortable in his own skin and, when pressed, tends to rely on statistics to make his points. He needs to be more visceral. Think: "I feel your pain."

His staff has been prepping him with a series of zingers and one liners. But can he deliver them without being stiff and stilted?

Neither candidate is a good storyteller, as Bill Clinton was in his speech at the 2012 Democratic convention, when he enthusiastically articulated a better path forward.

In fact, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are elitists.

Obama surely cringes when he is reminded that in front of wealthy donors in 2008, he commented on the folks in Pennsylvania, who cling to guns and Bibles as "crutches" because they cannot cope with the global economy.

But Obama transcended that difficult question -- "Is he one of us?" -- with middle-class white voters. He brought back the auto industry and saved millions of jobs for middle-class workers. You don't bite the hand that feeds you.

Obama needs more fluency with the kind of sound bites that will resonate with ordinary voters. Overall, he has a good hand going into the first debate. Political pundits say he will try to run out the clock and take no risks, which was his strategy in the 2008 McCain debates. But the race may be too close for such complacent tactics. It's Obama's debate to lose, but he has to keep reminding himself to connect to people.

If the debates -- and the election -- turn into a referendum on Obama's handling of the economy, he will lose. If the question becomes which of the two candidates has the best answers for the future, Obama will win. Obama will tie our economic woes to the Republicans, and ask, "Why in the world should we give back control of the country to the very people who got us into this mess in the first place?"

Unless Romney makes a credible, detailed case as to why his policies would be different from those of President Bush, he is going to have an uphill struggle. It is not going to be enough to just attack Obama.

Romney has to play offense. His past debate performances against Ted Kennedy (1994), John McCain (2008), and at the Republican primaries (2012) have not been very sure-footed. He should try to goad Obama into such mean-spirited gaffes as "You're likable enough, Hillary," which Obama uttered in the 2008 primary debates.

In the past, Republicans have managed to win presidential elections by sticking an elitist, far-left image on Democratic candidates: Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and John Kerry all went down this way.

For the next six weeks, the Republicans are going to cram this elitist perception of Obama down the throats of the voters. They will try to "define" the Democratic nominee, just as they defined Kerry as an elitist windsurfing snob, instead of the war hero he was.

Of course, most Americans already know who they are going to vote for by start of the debates (and many will have already voted), but there still remains the possibility to reset the dynamic for the 6 percent who haven't really made up their minds.

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