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Mitt Romney split screen image—Romney grimacing at Romney
You're gonna have to win the debate with yourself, Mitt.
Mitt Romney is suffering from the worst possible problem in the debates expectations game. Namely, that he has to win them to turn his campaign around. The more I read what is going on in the national media, the more I think that Romney himself has set the bar so high he will be unable to clear it. That bar, of course, is a measurable lead in the polls. At this point, he needs an 8 to 9 point turnaround in the polls to have a successful debate. He can't just bring it back to a tie, he has to take the lead. Significantly.

First, he made the mistake of leaving the campaign trail and announcing that he would sequester himself in a mansion for a full week of debate prep during the Democratic convention:

As the Democratic National Convention swings into full gear, new Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney plans to spend much of the week in private preparing for the fall's debates with President Obama, with no public appearances currently planned.
Then, his campaign continued speaking extensively to the press about Mitt Romney's extended debate practice. Most astonishingly, we've heard from his actual debate sparring partner, Sen. Rob Portman. Hell, even Romney himself is talking about it a lot.

The Washington press establishment, and the punditocracy, has now amplified what Mitt Romney himself has put a lot of work into. They have made it clear that he needs a "game changer" and that a so-so performance wouldn't cut it. They wouldn't be saying that if the Romney campaign were pushing a different "game changing" moment, like perhaps the October jobs number. Of course, that comes with its own perils. But the way the Romney campaign has placed all its marbles, publicly, on the debate as life preserver is a crucial mistake.

In contrast, President Obama is campaigning, being president, and crashing debate prep. They aren't saying anything about what they need or don't need to happen during the debate. President Obama hasn't said a word about it. Even if Obama loses the debate, the campaign isn't talking about what they need to happen or need to do. That's intelligent. That's how you set the expectations game. You don't say you need to win or lose or that it will make any difference. You simply make the point that your opponent is a fantastic debater. Even John McCain's campaign understood this.

The media loves a comeback story and there is no doubt that Romney will be talked up in the wake of the debate. The key problem here is this: Ultimately what has to happen is that the candidate himself has to correct the reasons why he's losing in the polls. He can't just make the best of zingers, which will get him a few news cycles at best. He can't make his case to the media. He has to appreciably correct his misfortunes with the voters, which is a different sort of debate posture. He won't be debating Obama on his own terms. He's got to fight with himself and win big if he's going to move the polls. That's the test here he's set for himself: substantially moving the polls rather than just winning the night. He's got to simultaneously correct his negative personal perceptions, offer details on how his policies would differ from both Obama's and the Republican party of 2001-2012, convince Obama voters to abandon Obama, clear the "presidential alternative" threshold, explain his contradictory positions and statements, reassure his base, and deliver the media catnip. That is quite a lot to get done in one debate.

If he doesn't get those 8 to 9 points, including the internals like favorability, he will be written off by media, establishment Republicans and Democrats, and probably his own campaign staff. If Obama wins the debate, or if it comes out, as is likely, a wash, then he's finished as a candidate. Risky blunder.

Originally posted to Triple-B in the Building on Fri Sep 28, 2012 at 07:53 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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