Mitt Romney's Denver Debate Challenge

Mitt Romney needs to convince Americans President Barack Obama doesn't deserve a contract extension as their head coach.

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Nate Silver, the New York Times's political stat guru, says Mitt Romney trails President Barack Obama by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. I would say he is down 10 with no timeouts, but it's hard to know given the confusion over polling methods and suspicions among many that the current polls are substantially less accurate than in recent elections.

[See behind-the-scenes photos of Denver preparing for the debate.]

But that's not the football analogy Romney should focus on in his debate with the president on Wednesday night in Denver. He should paint President Obama as a coach who took over a team four years ago. The team was in some disarray and needed a strong leader to turn things around. Four years later, it's time to decide whether to extend that coach's contract. He changed the offense from one that empowered players at several positions to one that relied on one truly dominant player—government—to move the ball forward. He changed the defense from one that stood tall against outside challenges to one that relied more on shifting, leading from behind, and, in the final days of the final season, allowed some huge gains by the opponents.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

The president's squads did score a few victories thanks to special teams—a surprise onside kick that caught Osama bin Laden unaware led to a significant victory. But special teams also suffered some big losses and, perhaps more significantly, some huge missed opportunities.

Where do things stand now? If this is college and teams are playing 12 game schedules, President Obama hasn't come close to leading his team to a bowl game. His best season so far is 3-9, and it's not clear he's done anything that would give hope of even reaching .500 over the next four years.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

The alums are restless. They want to move forward. At the same time, a large bloc of them is happy their school hired the first African-American coach in conference history. They like the coach personally, and they can't help but hope against hope he can yet make the team a winner.

This makes it exceedingly tough on the alums who want a new coach. They must convince others the future won't get brighter without a change at the top and that they're so certain of this, it's worth dumping the popular coach whose very hiring made history.

Oh yes … and the coach who wants the job has to lobby on his own behalf.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Romney can do this, and those who assume it's over didn't pay attention during the Republican primaries. Romney was never the crowd darling. First, it was Michele Bachmann, then Herman Cain, then Rick Perry, then Newt Gingrich and, finally, Rick Santorum. Debate after debate, the onlookers sought desperately for someone who could knock Romney to the deck so hard he could not recover. But time after time, he did get back up. He ended up winning the Republican nomination comfortably and, despite the right never truly warming up to him, he raised enough money to stand toe-to-toe with an incumbent president.

But none of that matters now. What matters is that this is the biggest night of Romney's political life. It has all led up to this. The six years on the presidential campaign trail. The time as governor of Massachusetts, failed Senate candidate, rescuer of the Salt Lake City Olympics.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is the United States a Nation of 'Makers and Takers?']

If Romney wants to win, it is not complicated. He needs to talk about how the president has not turned the program around, how his new offense and defense have failed, and how Romney—a competent manager of large enterprises, indeed, a turnaround specialist in his professional life—has a plan to make things better in all phases of the game.

But if Romney doesn't take advantage of this huge opportunity—50 million people watching; Jim Lehrer, a true pro, officiating; and a nation wanting change—the president will emerge with a two touchdown lead and, in all likelihood, that long-sought contract extension.

  • Read Pete Hegseth: Media Owe Voters a Discussion of Real Issues During Debates
  • Read Peter Fenn: Will the Presidential Debates Make a Difference?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy