Hey Mitt, The Debate's Not a Fight, It's Oprah, or The View

Mitt Romney must remember that style matters more than substance as he debates President Barack Obama tonight.

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They say you rarely get a second chance to make a first impression. But after his abysmal performance at the first presidential tilt in Denver, President Barack Obama hopes he can do exactly that in the town-hall-style debate Tuesday night in Hempstead, N.Y.

But he's not the only candidate who needs a strong performance. Mitt Romney may have received "his best set of polls all year" last Friday, according to polling analyst Nate Silver of The New York Times. Still, if Romney is to win the White House—if he is to overcome the 15- to 20-point disadvantage he still faces in the Electoral College vote—he can't rest on his first debate success.

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

And he can't do it by attacking President Obama. The president and his record are not the focal points of this debate—the dozen or so undecided voters who will ask questions of the candidates are. Moderator Candy Crowley can inject herself as well, although neither candidate wants her to play a major role. But for the most part, both are at the mercy of the studio audience.

It is important for Romney to remember that style matters more than substance, that this isn't the place to explain in any extensive detail his economic plans and he should avoid trading barbs. This is not Denver. This is Oprah or The View. Listen. Understand. Exchange ideas.

This format certainly favors Obama's campaigner-and-chief style, but Romney can certainly succeed.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

To be successful Romney needs to focus on five items:

  1. Win the body language battle. Be respectful of those in the audience; this is their debate. Engage questioners and, above all else, look them in the eye.
  2. Don't get bogged down in specifics. The president wants a drawn-out discussion of every facet of Romney's tax plan, even though he has been quite mum on what he would do to address the fiscal crisis in a second term. Romney must not take the bait. He must keep the discussion on top-line items and fill his two-minute segments with explanations of those. If the subject is the budget, he doesn't need to identify cuts. He needs to say, "We borrow 42 cents of every dollar we spend. If that makes sense to you, if you think that's sustainable, vote for my opponent because that's what he offers."
  3. Talk about the future. Americans want to know Romney has a plan to fix things—one that will work better than what President Obama offers. Romney must show he thinks forward and that he—unlike the president—can work across party lines.
  4. Don't be afraid to get personal. Voters want to know you share their pain. Be ready to talk about the 47 percent gaffe. Be ready to show you know people are struggling, and, as president, you will address this. Don't be afraid to share a personal story. Channel your inner-Bill Clinton.
  5. Talk up Ohio. As Republican pollster Frank Luntz notes, this whole election likely hinges on Ohio. Moreover, Ohio is America. What appeals there appeals in lots of places. Romney trails in the Buckeye State. He should not let an opportunity to speak to Ohioans slip away.
  6. [See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

    Bonus points: Auto bailout. If the president talks about how he "saved" the auto industry, Romney must be ready to pounce. "Yes, the auto parts industry is temporarily afloat because of President Bush's bailout. But what America needs is permanent growth, permanent strength in our economy ... the kind that comes only from freeing up entrepreneurs to create jobs and wealth." 

    • Read Jamie Stiehm on what Obama has to do to win the second debate.
    • Read Robert Schlesinger: Why Romney and Ryan Won't Answer the Tax Loophole Question
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