SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney’s first debate with President Barack Obama Wednesday may be one of the GOP nominee’s final chances to turn around a race that polls show increasingly favors the incumbent.
But political observers suggest the odds are against Romney seeing a significant surge in support after the 90-minute debate at the University of Denver. With early voting getting underway in many states, time is running out to change the course of the election.
“Sooner or later, he’s going to have to try for the knockout,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University, a high-stakes risk that campaigns usually try to avoid.
Just matching the president punch for punch on stage won’t be enough to close the widening gap between the candidates, particularly in swing states like Colorado where the election will likely be decided, Saunders said.
Obama leads by nearly 3 points in Colorado, according to a RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls. Nationally, the same website puts Obama ahead of Romney by an average of more than 4 points based on recent polls.
“He has to do something different,” Saunders said. “These debates are some of the last opportunities Romney has to persuade the electorate and change the narrative.”
Exactly what the former Salt Lake Olympic leader needs to do in the debate to score with voters is not clear, he said.
“There is a potential for Romney to make a difference. I just don’t know what that looks like,” Saunders said.
In Ohio, another swing state, Ohio State University political science professor Nathaniel Swigger said debates seldom attract much attention from the undecided voters that both candidates are courting.
“If you think about it, you’re much more likely to watch a football game if you’re cheering for one of the teams to win,” Swigger said. “Politics is the same. And let’s face it, if you’re an undecided voter at this point, chances are you’re not really engaged.”
Obama is up by as much as 10 points in some Ohio polls, RealClearPolitics.com reported, and leading by an average of more than 5 points in a state that traditionally is seen as a must-win to get to the White House.
Swigger said he doesn’t expect Wednesday's debate to have much impact on those numbers.
“Truthfully, it’s really, really, really, really difficult to move the needle with a presidential debate,” he said. “If Romney is going to get any kind of momentum out of the debate, he needs something really, really incredible to happen.”
Time magazine’s White House correspondent, Michael Scherer, said many Americans likely won’t be watching the debates despite what's at stake.
“They’re not the Super Bowl,” said Scherer, also an author of Time’s “The Essential Voter’s Guide.”
Romney’s campaign has long seen the debates as crucial, he said, but that’s more true than ever given some of the difficulties the GOP candidate has encountered in recent weeks.
Those include the surfacing of a video shot at a private fundraiser where Romney describes nearly half of the electorate as Obama supporters who are dependent on government and view themselves as victims.
“September has been a bad month,” Scherer said. “What he’s got to do is show not only he’s a compassionate guy, a straight shooter, and he has a plan and he’s competent and capable of carrying out the plan.”
What Romney’s team is hoping for is a repeat of 1980, when GOP challenger Ronald Reagan disarmingly delivered his now famous line, “There you go again,” to President Jimmy Carter during a debate and went on to soundly defeat the incumbent.
“They believe this race will be like 1980,” Scherer said, with Romney emerging as the victor in a side-by-side comparison with the president.
That's an uphill battle, Scherer said. Still, he stopped short of predicting the impact of the debate.
“There’s a reason elections are exciting,” he said. “And that’s because no one can predict them.”
One of Romney’s top surrogates on the campaign trail, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, said all the GOP candidate really has to do is look the part on Wednesday night.
“Job one: Be presidential. He doesn’t have to win the battle of most memorable line, but he has to walk away with people envisioning him as the president of the United States of America,” Chaffetz said.
There are plenty of voters who see the country as off-track, the congressman said, but they may still need to be convinced Romney is up for the job as commander in chief.
“If the truly undecided and persuadables can feel comfortable with Mitt Romney as president, then I believe Mitt Romney will be president,” Chaffetz said.
What the audience doesn’t need to see, he said, is Romney delivering any knockout blows.
“If (Obama) hasn’t convinced them in four years, another 90 minutes probably isn’t going to make the difference,” Chaffetz said. “All things being equal with President Obama and Mitt Romney, that’s a victory for Mitt because he’s shown he can be presidential.”
Even so, Chaffetz disagreed the debates were make-or-break for Romney. He will be among the Romney surrogates posted in the so-called “spin room” after each debate to offer commentary.
“You have tens of millions of dollars being poured in for ads. You have a ground game that will be pivotal in getting out the vote. You have unforeseen world events,” he said, acknowledging that Romney “needs to do well. But I don’t think the expectations have to be over the moon.”
Utah advertising executive Tom Love said just looking presidential won’t give Romney much of a boost.
“He’s made more missteps than he’s made positive steps,” Love said. “I don’t’ think an hour and a half forum where he’s next to the president is enough.”
Romney’s problem, Love said, is that he still needs to sell himself to voters as likable while at the same time appearing tough as he takes on the president.
“He’s in a really touchy position. He’s got to play some hardball,” said Love, who has helped ready a number of Utah candidates for debates over the years and sees preparation as key to a good peformance.
“It’s knowing exactly what you’re going to say and when you’re going to say it,” he said. “It’s the hems and haws, those are what cripple you.”
Coming across as confident inspires the same in viewers, Love said. Having a few quick comebacks ready helps.
“You always have one or two zingers,” he said, aimed at countering expected criticism from an opponent. “Those aren’t made up on the spot. Those are well-rehearsed.”
Dave Woodard, a political science professor and pollster at Clemson University in South Carolina, said what Romney has to show in Wednesday’s debate is passion.
“His message is just not connecting,” Woodard said. “He ought to do something to separate himself and show he has some passion. We all know he has a good mind. But he needs to show he’s fired up.”
Romney, he said, may not be able to shed his ‘Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ image on the debate stage, one of his final opportunities to demonstrate to voters a different side.
“They don’t pump you up. That’s his problem,” Woodard said. “It doesn’t look to me that the corporate Mitt Romney is going to be very convincing to the American electorate.”
Time: Wednesday, 7-8:30 p.m. MST.
Topic: Domestic policy.
Location: University of Denver, Denver, Colorado.
TV coverage: KSL-TV 5 political specialists Richard Piatt and John Daley will be in Denver at the debate providing insight, interviews and commentary beginning Tuesday and through the debate Wednesday night. Each debate will be broadcast live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, as well as all cable news channels including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
Format: This is the first of four October debates between President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney. The debate will focus on domestic policy and be divided into six segments of approximately 15 minutes each. The debate moderator is Jim Lehrer of PBS, who will open each segment with a question and each candidate will have two minutes to respond. The remaining time in each segment will be discussion and followup questions moderated by Lehrer.
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