In the second of two opinion pieces, Andy Hume, debate coach and former world debating champion, provides advice to the candidates on what they need to do to win the upcoming US presidential debates. Yesterday, it was President Obama. Today it’s Governor Romney.
Your opponent has a small but persistent lead in most of the polls, and it’s fair to say that media coverage in the post-convention period has not been very favourable to your campaign. But there is still one big opportunity for you to reassert yourself in this race, and it comes with the three debates you’ll have against President Obama in October.
You are running against an incumbent. That brings him obvious advantages, but the debates offer you some advantages, too. Apart from anything else, appearing on the podium with the President elevates you, as well. The simple visual of standing next to the Commander-in-Chief as an equal forces viewers to consider you in the same light as your opponent. Your challenge is to appear presidential in these debates; to present yourself as a realistic and convincing alternative to the current holder of that office.
The format of the first debate, in Denver on October 3rd, plays to your strengths in a number of ways. For a start, it is focused solely on domestic policy, which will allow you to focus on the least successful aspects of your rival’s record, particularly on the economy and jobs. Keep the debate focused on this. Obama will try to pivot onto discussion of the next four years, not the last four, and try to recapture the spirit of optimism that put him in the White House in 2008. Don’t let him. You need to look forward as well, of course; the viewers won’t want to see too much negativity from you – but try to do it on your terms, not his. Obama will try to enumerate an action plan, as he did so effectively in he debates against Senator McCain. Where you are responding to the questioner first, beat him at his own game by enumerating your own plan clearly and succinctly.
More specifically, and in a break from previous election cycles, this debate, and the final debate in Florida on October 22nd, will be split into six pre-announced topic areas, so you’ll know in advance what is coming. This, too, gives you an advantage. Looking at your past debate performances, it is clear that you are at your best when you are prepared; your weakest moments during the primary debates came when you departed too far from the script. You know there will be questions on closing tax loopholes and budget cuts and you need to offer some substance that lends credibility to your position, even where there is no detail to provide. Resist the temptation to indulge in too many off-the-cuff remarks – and please don’t challenge Obama to a $10,000 bet!
Your potential advantages over the President don’t end there. You also have much more time to prepare for these contests. Obama has a day job; you can devote hours to debate prep that he simply doesn’t have. You also have the benefit of having done over 20 debates during the Republican primaries, and by the end of that process you’d discovered a firm, clear style. You learnt from Newt’s bullying tactics and looked at your best when you were prepared to go toe-to-toe and stand up for yourself. But remember that you are speaking to a very different audience this time around; your job now is not to throw red meat to your base, but to reassure swing voters that you would be a competent but moderate presence in the White House. That’s a different message, and it requires different, and softer, rhetoric.
To win this election, you need to bring over centrist voters who backed Obama in 2008 but are now unsure whom to vote for. To this end, your approach in recent weeks has been to paint the President as an essentially good man who’s sadly not quite up to the job. Continue on this theme in the debates. Treat your opponent with respect, but not reverence. Show that you’re not intimidated by him. You have experience of this from your 1994 Senatorial campaign against Ted Kennedy, when you sought with some success to present him in a similar way; as a good and faithful public servant who was nonetheless no longer the right man for the job. The circumstances and opponent are different, but the broad approach should be the same.
People like Obama, and they like him, forgive me for saying so, more than they like you. So don’t attack him on a personal level; attack his policies and his record. For his part, he will doubtless try to focus on those elements of your personal background – your wealth, your business record – which his focus groups have told him play badly with ordinary voters. Try to turn these into strengths. The American people respect wealth when it’s been fairly earned, and in these circumstances they will value a man with a proven record of turning around failing enterprises. The voters may prefer to have a beer with your opponent rather than you, but they know that they are electing a Commander-in-Chief, and what they crave most of all is competence, command, and heft. Show them that you have those qualities. Be clear and firm; don’t waffle. That recently leaked video of you meandering through the Middle East conflict with no real goal or plan is the antithesis of what’s needed in this debate.
It bears pointing out, finally, that expectations are set higher for Obama than they are for you; he has a higher bar to clear. There is a general belief, fuelled by his undoubted oratorical skills, that your rival is a star debater, but this is not really borne out by his record. He can appear wooden and uncomfortable under questioning, and unlike you, he has not debated for four years. If you can win the first debate – which I am sure that you can – it will force the media, hitherto somewhere between sceptical and hostile, to reassess your campaign and candidacy, and it will give you momentum going into the subsequent clashes. That may – just – be enough to turn round the dynamics of what is still a close race.