Already tightening polls give former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a “huge opportunity” to stun the Obama campaign with a strong debate performance Wednesday night, in part by connecting with swing voters who have never had an opportunity to hear the GOP standard-bearer defend himself against Democratic attacks, conservative pundits say.
The media have been quick to portray Romney’s campaign as slipping further and further behind in recent weeks. But that narrative stands in contrast to several recent polls that now show the election essentially deadlocked before Romney takes the debate stage against the incumbent president -- a situation that usually favors the challenger.
“I see a huge opportunity for Mitt Romney,” InsiderAdvantage pollster Matt Towery tells Newsmax.
Newsmax and InsiderAdvantage are teaming up to conduct a nationwide “flash poll” immediately following the debate in Denver. The poll results are expected within 45 minutes after Romney and Obama make their final pitches to the American public in the first — and what appears to be shaping up as the most critical — of the three planned presidential debates leading up the Nov. 6 election.
The RealClearPolitics poll average shows a narrowing of Obama’s lead among likely voters. Since Sunday, Obama’s lead has slipped from a 4.3 percent advantage (48.9 percent to 44.6 percent for Romney), to just a 3.1 percent edge earlier Wednesday (49.1 percent to 46 percent for Romney).
The Obama campaign has been working furiously this week to dampen a view it normally promotes, namely, that the president is a gifted orator and skilled debater. In fact, Obama recently described himself as a “just OK” debater.
Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing back against the notion that Romney has to turn in a dominant performance in the debate, which begins at 9 p.m. Eastern, to stave off Obama.
“He has to demonstrate to the millions of Americans who are up for a change that he is ready for the fight,” says former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell. “He doesn’t have to score a knockout tonight, but show he has the will to win and skills to lead a more prosperous future.”
Towery tells Newsmax Romney must seize the initiative and keep Obama on the defensive. He advises Romney to exploit Vice President Joe Biden’s latest gaffe, an admission that middle-class voters have been “buried” by a bad economy over the past four years that Obama has been in office.
“I don’t think Barack Obama can be on the defensive for more than about 15 minutes without becoming very frustrated, and very angry,” says Towery. “If you can ever get a candidate frustrated or angry, that incumbent can start to crumble.”
Of course, that would run counter to Obama’s unflappable, cool temperament. But despite his success in 2008 against then-opponent Hillary Clinton, Obama actually is less experienced than Romney on the debate stage. Obama has had 22 primary or presidential debates, compared to 35 for Romney.
One Republican strategist who says Obama’s performance may suffer from four years in the Beltway bubble is Bradley A. Blakeman, senior staffer under former President George W. Bush.
“We saw that in the Univision interview,” Blakeman told Newsmax. “When the president was presented with a fair question on immigration, he was immediately rocked onto defense and was visibly annoyed. So the president has had the luxury of having a mainstream media that really has been a de facto part of his campaign.”
Blakeman adds that Romney will have to persuade voters that he has viable alternative proposals to Obama’s that can succeed in turning around the economy.
One dilemma for Romney: How to disagree with Obama without coming off as disagreeable. Months of Democratic attacks ads have already elevated his negative ratings with some voters to dangerously high levels.
“We like to like our presidents,” former Ronald Reagan chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein recently told the Wall Street Journal of Romney. “He needs to be more apple pie and less castor oil.”
Wednesday’s debate, which will be moderated by longtime PBS Newshour host Jim Lehrer, will focus on domestic issues. Anticipated topics include the sluggish economy, out-of-control entitlements, spiraling debt, and healthcare reform.
Republicans aren’t the only ones who say the initial debate confrontation should favor the challenger.
“I think the likeliest outcome of this debate is that things will tighten a little bit,” political analyst Kyle D. Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics tells Newsmax. “I think Romney still has folks out there to get under his tent. But the question is, can he eat into Obama’s 49 percent? If we start to see Obama’s support go down, then we’ve really got something.”
Polls indicate Obama continues to enjoy significant advantages in several swing states. But Towery sees a golden opportunity for Romney to perform some political jiu-jitsu Wednesday, in part because he believes the media has seriously underestimated the former Massachusetts governor.
“You can bet in the back of their minds they expect Obama to mop the floor with Mitt Romney, says Towery, commenting on most pundits’ expectations. “So if Romney comes in and has a strong performance tonight, it will not only shock the chattering class, but will surprise a lot of voters who really have never heard Mitt Romney speak.”
That said, Towery concedes Obama is a strong debater.
“He is going to be good. Anybody who thinks he’s not is crazy,” he says.
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