09/28/2012 05:41 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

What Romney Must Do in the Debates

On the road to recovery, one must always accept reality and the truth as it exists -- not what we want it to be, but what it is. The reality is that Mitt Romney is behind in the presidential race right now -- nationally and in nearly every key battleground state. This race today is not within the margin of error, no matter how many attacks his supporters wage on the integrity of public polling.

It would be much better for the Romney campaign to admit this and then, once out of denial, to make the necessary course corrections. I estimate that, right now, Romney is down nationally by about 5 percentage points. And in critical states -- from Florida to Virginia to Ohio -- he is probably down by roughly the same margin.

The good news for Romney is that the equilibrium of this race is probably a 2- or 3-point margin, both nationally and in the key battleground states. This is likely where this race will return after the first debate if Romney performs reasonably well.

In preparing for the debates, Romney (and President Obama) needs to remember that judgments on winning or losing are much more stylistic than substantive. The public isn't interested in getting more-detailed policy specifics, but in getting pointers about the people onstage. When debates have moved numbers in the past, it has been result of impressions, mannerisms, and style. (As an aside, Obama will be judged a loser if he comes across as aloof, arrogant, impatient or irritable.)

Romney should remember that winning -- or even just doing well -- requires understanding that voters will see these debates through a prism of the letter "C." It will be a comparison and contrast of the candidates on three parameters: competence, compassion, and connection. Romney has suffered recently because of a perceived lack of these qualities, and that explains why he is behind.

His too-quick-on-the draw accusation related to the Libya tragedy allowed some voters to question his competence. The "47 percent" video -- along with an existing narrative of him not understanding average voters' concerns -- has made him look less than compassionate. And his campaigning and manner too often have made him seem disconnected from the public.

In this first debate (and the subsequent two), Romney needs to rebuild all of these, on issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy, and to reestablish his presence in this race. This is a tall order, but doable. If he can accomplish this, he will close the gap with Obama and the media will write the "Romney comeback" story for at least a few days. If he has any chance of winning at this point, he needs that oxygen.

This race is still winnable for Romney because of voters' dissatisfaction with the country's direction, but the window is closing soon. The presidential race has gone from a probable victory for him a few months ago to a possible one today, but the outlook is slowly moving to unlikely.

If Romney wants to win, this is the moment to focus on those three C's. Otherwise, he'll need to focus on another "C" on Nov. 6: concession.

Cross-posted from National Journal