Obama-Romney debate gets real tonight

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Tonight, Rob Portman and John Kerry can take a break from doppelganger duty.

For weeks, the two senators have been trying to channel the thoughts, gestures and retorts of the two men who will take the stage of the University of Denver, a stepping stone for one of them to spending the next four years in the White House.

Mr. Kerry's been standing in for Mitt Romney as President Barack Obama honed his debate skills. Mr. Portman played the president against the real Mitt Romney as the former governor prepared for a crucial opportunity to hobble the incumbent's re-election bid. With voting already under way in many states, it could be his last, best chance to shake up the dynamics of a race that appears to be going against him.

Tom Rath, a Romney adviser, said the candidates prepare for the sessions "the way you would prepare for a major athletic event," complete with mock stages, focus-group-tested answers and instant video feedback on their deliveries.

"The amount of time and preparation tells you how much the candidates think they matter," he said during a PNC panel on debate last week.

David Axelrod, a senior strategist for the president, warned in a memo last week against campaign efforts to shape expectations for the debates. Then, naturally, he shifted to an effort to do just that.

"First, just as he was in the primaries, we expect Mitt Romney to be a prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater," Mr. Axelrod wrote in a memo that also contended that presidential challengers have a recent history of outperforming expectations in their first encounter with the incumbent.

Mr. Romney was on various stages for 23 GOP debates on his way to winning the chance to oust the incumbent.

He had weak moments -- his offer to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 over a disagreement, and his flat-footed "maybe" to a question on whether he would release his tax returns -- but he never had a really bad debate overall.

In two debates before the Florida primary he put former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the defensive with a pair of particularly aggressive performances. He also turned in one of his stronger performances before the Arizona primary, when he pummeled former Sen. Rick Santorum, portraying him as a Washington insider.

Mr. Obama took part in even more debates to win his first term -- 25 Democratic debates during primary season and three face-offs with Sen. John McCain on his way to the White House. But that, of course, was four years ago. Then Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards outshone Mr. Obama at times in the Democratic forums, but he was a solid debater generally credited with turning in stronger performances as the Democratic nomination battle went on. He cruised through the three general election debates with Mr. McCain, who struggled to use the encounters to revive his campaign.

Mr. Obama flew to Nevada over the weekend for his final preparations with an "opponent," the Massachusetts senator who got generally high marks playing himself in three debates against former President George W. Bush in 2004. Mr. Romney arrived in Denver on Monday night for a rally. His Tuesday was focused on more debate prep with Mr. Portman, the Ohio senator he reportedly considered as a potential running mate. It's a familiar role for Mr. Portman, who also stood in for Mr. Obama in Mr. McCain's debate rehearsals in 2008.

Campaigning in Ohio last week, Mr. Romney said of his practiced sparring partner, "He plays Barack Obama. He plays him well, too. After the ... hour and a half or so, I'm like, I want to kick him out of the room, he's so good."

Former Massachusetts Treasurer Shannon O'Brien faced Mr. Romney in 2002 in a series of debates that, along with Mr. Romney's spending advantage in the race, were regarded as key factors in his victory for governor. She depicted her former opponent as a sharp, consistently well-prepared debater, but one who could be thrown off his stride by the unexpected.

"From my experience, you're going to see someone who's spent a tremendous amount of time in front of a video camera ... [he] will be completely prepared," she said. "I don't think there will be too many questions he hasn't practiced already."

"Where he gets into trouble," she said, "is when he has the unscripted moment, [but] he doesn't leave much to chance. He has the intelligence and the talent to speak extremely intelligently about issues."

The stakes for both candidates are high, but clearly more so for Mr. Romney, who faces the task of reversing the incumbent's consistent leads in the handful of states that will decide the election. Of the dozen states that make RealClearPolitics' battleground list, the Republican enjoys leads in the averages of recent polling in only two -- Missouri and North Carolina. Mr. Obama leads in all the rest, including the major prizes of Ohio, Florida and Virginia.

Tonight's 9 p.m. debate, moderated by PBS veteran Jim Lehrer, will focus on domestic policy. In two weeks, the candidates will meet in a town hall format moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. Their final debate, with CBS's Bob Schieffer as the referee, will be in Boca Raton, Fla.


Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. First Published October 3, 2012 4:00 AM


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