Tomorrow may single-handedly decide the White House.
After the romp that was the first Presidential debate, everyone wants to see whether there will be a repeat performance. One thing can be sure, President Obama cannot present himself the same way as he did in round one. One problem for him is that he cannot totally do a 180, because it will seem forced and desperate. The second issue is that the debate format has changed for round two. Tomorrow’s debate will be in the form of a town-hall meeting, meaning the candidates will be directly responding to questions from an audience of undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization. There will be less one-on-one time to intensely attack and speak directly to one another. That will not allow either candidate to gain the kind of momentum Mitt Romney did the first time around.
One possible advantage for Obama is the moderator. In early October, both the Romney and Obama camps agreed that the moderator should play a limited role in the debate. In the agreement, signed by lawyers of both campaigns, it reads “…the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic … The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the two-minute response period.”
However, moderator Candy Crowley of CNN was not a party to that agreement and has made it clear that she would like to play a larger role than just facilitating the question and answer session. Last week, Crowley went so far as to say “Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, Z?’” Following that comment, both campaigns contacted the Commission on Presidential Debates to press them to re-stress Crowley’s role directly to her and to ensure the agreed-upon guidelines of the debate are followed as-agreed. Whether or not that occurs is something to keep an eye on.
One additional reason for Mitt Romney to be concerned is that Candy Crowley herself deemed the Romney/Ryan pairing as “some sort of ticket death wish” on-air after Paul Ryan was selected as the Vice-Presidential candidate. Yet, they still chose her as a moderator for this debate. Not surprisingly, all four debates included moderators considered to be on the liberal side of the spectrum. During the first debate, Jim Lehrer stayed in the background and facilitated the conversation, recognizing he was not the main attraction and letting the candidates duke it out. He was scrutinized by the left as they searched for someone to blame for Obama’s self-implosion, but he nonetheless performed the role as defined. For the VP debate, Martha Raddatz began to show why choosing liberals to moderate a debate can cause partiality, as she interrupted Paul Ryan multiple times in mid-sentence and allowed Biden to run roughshod throughout, interrupting Ryan himself 85 times. As CNN reported, she seemed almost to be the “third debater.”
Surprisingly, even the most liberal of media outlets recognized that there was an obvious skew to the moderating during the Vice-Presidential debate. Combine that recognition with the Biden smirk-a-thon and any possible shift in momentum was immediately stunted. As you saw last week, the post-debate polls showed Paul Ryan as the winner. Playing it safe protected the Romney/Ryan lead and momentum. Both the Rasmussen and Gallup polls currently display a two-point lead for Mitt Romney, and the momentum clearly remains on his side.
So what should we ultimately expect from Romney vs. Obama, round two?
First, there is absolutely no way we’ll see the Barack Obama that showed up October 3rd. One more lackluster performance would be the final nail in the coffin. He also locked himself away at a Virginia resort over the weekend to prepare for this debate. He realizes the urgency tomorrow brings.
Next, Mitt Romney will be almost identical to round one. He is now the front-runner who also understands how essential his presentation will be. He needs to be seen as strong and consistent, which translates as being Presidential. If he can repeat his first appearance, nothing President Obama says or does will result in a win. At best, it will end in a tie, which still does not stop the surging momentum. Nothing illustrates this momentum better than the wide-reporting of rapidly-growing crowds at Romney/Ryan rallies around the country. When massive crowds flock to rallies, they’ll also flock to the polls. This fact cannot be ignored.
Lastly, keep an eye on the moderator. The warning signs are there for Candy Crowley. The moderator’s role for this debate has been defined. Will she follow that designation or will she attempt to facilitate an Obama win through bias and unfair questioning?
Tomorrow may be the quintessential moment of the campaign. Don’t miss it.