A couple months back, well-before hidden videotapes and falling polls, I was discussing the unfolding Romney campaign with a friend. Though it was already stumbling badly in early gaffes and mismanagement, I nonetheless said that its failures were largely meaningless because campaigns ebb-and-flow, which is why the most important event of the campaign would be the three debates.
The first takes place next Wednesday.
They would be that important, I said, because I believed it would be where the Romney campaign imploded.
"I hope you're right," my friend wistfully replied.
I hope so, too, I said, but added that I wasn't saying it out of hope. I was saying it for very specific, observed and detailed reasons. It had nothing to do with hope.
First, though, it's important to step back and view the landscape.
There is always a delicate balance when presidential debates loom. On the one hand, campaigns like to be positive and create enthusiasm for their supporters. On the other hand is the concept of diminished expectations, where anything positive can then be spun as a win.
At this point, the Romney camp seems to be taking the first route. This is understandable. When the national co-chair of your campaign has just jumped ship, and senate candidates have begun distancing themselves in droves, you don't need to give your supporters yet another reason to duck-and-cover.
The Obama team has been more circumspect. The most we've heard is that, because the president has his job to do as president, he's had use his time on Air Force One to do debate preparation.
Personally, I'm encouraged that the Romney team has been so confident and building expectation. I think people should for once take Mitt Romney's word about something. It may not be the same as taking his word that his secret tax plan will cut $5 trillion -- but if someone is asking the American public to elect him president, we ought to trust him about something. So, trusting that Mitt Romney is ready to debate is the least people can do.
The problem is that once he steps out on the debate floor, "trust" is no longer on the table. It's every man for himself, and that's where Mitt Romney will be in trouble.
"I hope you're right," my friend said once again.
But this isn't about hope. While just an opinion, this is based on observation. And most importantly, it's based on the reality of history.
It's about many detailed, specific reasons.
But one reason above all.
1. When Barack Obama debated one-on-one against the deeply-experienced John McCain four years ago, it was Mr. Obama's substantive performance, and most of all his ability to stand presidential opposite a senior senator and war hero that elevated him and propelled him forward in voters' eyes.
(And no, that isn't the big reason. It's coming later.)
2. Though some Republicans suggest hopefully that the president is at risk for not having faced primary debates this year... they miss that for the past four years Mr. Obama has been defending his administration in press conferences, interviews, and against attacks by Republicans far more hate-filled and angry than anything that will ever be raised in a debate. Barack Obama has been answering all charges thrown at him relentlessly for four years.
3. Conversely, for those who think Mr. Romney holds an advantage for going through so many primary debates, he was debating people who largely agreed with him, most particularly about the president. So, it wasn't like he ever got challenged on his criticisms of the administration.
4. Indeed, that's one of the biggest obstacles Mitt Romney must deal with when debating Mr. Obama. A George Mason University study showed: "26 percent of the Romney campaign's statements were rated as either false or 'pants on fire,' compared to only 5 percent of the Obama campaign's statements." It's one thing to lie to a crowd of supporters or in a TV ad -- but it's something else to do so face-to-face to the person you're lying about. It's likely Mr. Romney won't dare repeat them... which eliminates the core of so many of his charges.
5. Many Republicans have somehow convinced themselves that the president can only read speeches from teleprompters. What gets forgotten is the reality that when Mr. Obama accepted an invitation from the Republican House Caucus, he stood alone in a hall overflowing with opponents and took random, blunt questions on live television for an hour -- and he was in such command that the mortified Republicans afterwards not only blamed themselves for allowing television coverage... but never invited him back.
(And no, none of these are that Big reason either. It's still to come...)
6. It's been widely documented how profoundly Mr. Romney has regularly reversed his opinions, sometimes just hours apart, before the campaign staff issues a clarification. It might be easy to slide by on flip-flops when on the road, but in a debate, you have to state your opinions just once -- and your past ones will come back to haunt you.
7. As much as Mr. Romney will want to talk about the economy... that means he'll need to discuss his tax plan -- which unfortunately is a secret. In a debate, people demand specifics. Worse, any tax discussion will open the debate door about his own unreleased taxes -- hidden in the Cayman Islands.
8. There will be a debate devoted to foreign policy -- of which Mr. Romney has zero experience. Except for his gaffe-filled European trip. And his irresponsible comments that even conservatives roundly-slammed after the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
9. And we haven't even mentioned the Romney Tapes. Not just his "47 percent" comment, but walking away from peace in the Middle East, giving terrorist advice to Iran, not knowing what a "dirty bomb" was and so much more.
But as problematic and substantive as all of these reasons are... they're almost meaningless when compared to the one non-substantive reason that Mr. Romney is in serious trouble during the debates. And that's --
10. Mitt Romney is unlikable. Even to Republicans. In a USA Today/Gallup Poll, only 31 percent of Americans find Mr. Romney "likable." Whether or not people agree with Barack Obama's policies, they at least generally like him. I believe it was John Heileman who observed after having followed Mr. Romney on the primary campaign trail for months: "The more people see Mitt Romney, the less they like him." Imagine then the public reaction after watching the unlikable Mitt Romney for three debates.
Right now, there are people sputtering, "Yeah, but, what about when Barack Obama can't explain... " Sorry. I just presented ten specific, detailed reasons why "Yeah, but... " won't cut it. President Obama will have challenging debate moments. And make no mistake, Mitt Romney is a smart and aggressive man. But unless these ten reasons above are addressed, Mitt Romney faces Game Over.
The problem that much of the Radical Far Right has in grasping this is that their response to the president is based on blind-fear and irrational hatred. So, their reaction is colored. But most of Americans don't see Barack Obama this way, as a Nazi-socialist-Muslim-terrorist-Kenyan who will Destroy Our Way of Life. They like or don't like his policies, and see him as a personable man. And so they are coming to the debate fairly, to see two candidates make their case.
And unfortunately for Mitt Romney, he is entering the debate stage having hit many large hurdles, and needing to demonstrate to the American public that he is presidential. That a man who is having a hard time running a campaign can run the most powerful nation on earth.
And he must get over those hurdles when only 31 percent of the public say they like you. And like you less the more they see of you.
In order to have a chance in the election, Mitt Romney has to overcome those walls in the debates. But if that's the case, Mitt Romney is in trouble.
"Trouble," here, will be defined as akin to Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff, looking out at the audience and holding up a sign that says, "Help."