Mitt Romney had the best political performance of his career last week in Denver, but his debate victory over President Barack Obama still leaves him with a big and not-easy question: Now what?
Republicans, not to mention many in the media, are gleeful that Romney has enlivened a campaign that was losing drama last month as Obama appeared to be solidifying his lead in the race. But for Romney's post-debate momentum to be meaningful -- in other words, for him genuinely to alter the basic trajectory of the race -- would require a string of other things to happen in rapid succession over coming days.
There are a half-dozen things that could happen -- at least several of them would need to happen -- for a potential Romney upset to be more than just GOP wishful thinking:
There is obviously no chance of Romney surprising Obama and the national press corps at the next debate the way he did at the first one. But, even before the two candidates meet again at Hofstra University on Oct. 16, Romney must demonstrate to voters that his Denver performance reflected the true measure of the man -- in other words, that he is a sharper, more coherent candidate than the caricature of him has indicated, and that the weaknesses he exposed in Obama -- a flaccid defense of his record, and a defensive and desultory tone -- can't all be chalked up to a single bad outing on stage.
Obama has already told people in his circle how displeased he was with his own, barely-there performance, and he will likely be better at the next one. A strong Obama debate performance, especially if contrasted against a merely adequate one by Romney, would bring the race closer to where it was before the president's sleepwalking in Denver.
Romney, meanwhile, will be judged by higher expectations. He must continue to show not simply that he's a credible alternative, but that he can point to the door marked "forward," as Republican strategist (and former Romney adviser) Alex Castellanos has long put it.
Romney is once again taking his debate prep very seriously. What's more, he's been road-testing a more emotive, connected side of himself at rallies since the debate. This has the added benefit of allowing practice for the town hall-style venue at Hofstra -- a format that puts attention as much on how candidates interact with people as it does on substance.
Given Romney's discipline and recent experience, a clear Obama victory is probably unlikely. But a clear Obama loss would invite perceptions of a downward spiral of the incumbent's strength and vastly increase the odds of a Romney presidency.
While the Obama campaign has had the luxury for months of pursuing a state-by-strategy, Romney is still focused on changing national perceptions. If he can increase his poll numbers everywhere by a few points, the theory goes, a bunch of states that currently look out of reach come back into play.
The good news for Romney is that his rave reviews from Denver do seem to be helping his national numbers in some surveys. The bad news is that almost no one in elite GOP fundraising and operative circles, or the national media, will take a comeback seriously until is there is evidence of it in several key states, and one above all. Ohio is that state.
There really is not much of a path to an Electoral College victory for Romney, who is behind in Wisconsin and Michigan and other Midwestern states he had hoped to flip, without Ohio. He let months of Democratic ads assaulting his business experience go unanswered in a state where the auto bailout is popular, and Obama's effort to portray Romney as Snidely Whiplash has been especially damaging. Falling just behind Ohio as states to watch are Florida and Virginia.
Beyond these key states, Romney must use the next week to 10 days to show that he can make his Denver performance less of a "bounce" -- which, by definition, is ephemeral -- into more of a vault, taking his campaign to a more commanding and stable position.
Romney's team believes that to a make a post-Denver comeback real, they must make up ground in what might be called the empathy index -- proving to voters what polls show many doubt, that he cares about the problems of average Americans. That's why he tried to present a softer and more compassionate side of his personality in Denver; on the trail on Friday in Florida, the candidate began talking about people he's helped through struggles.
It's not the same intensity as a presidential debate, but along with Romney's foreign policy speech on Monday, the debate between Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden likely will count as this week's most significant campaign moment.
Republicans have spent weeks suggesting that Biden is such a gaffe machine that he will not make it through the debate without saying something to make Obama's advisers scream into pillows backstage. In fact, Obama's team is concerned about the type of off-hand remark from Biden that could be the one thing people take away from the debate.
And yet, Ryan, the 42-year-old House budget committee chairman, has never debated at this level, or anything close to it. His national media interviews have been relatively limited compared to his in-state TV hits during his two months on the campaign trail.
Biden, despite his penchant for straying off message, is simply a good, experienced debater. He struck an aggressive but not patronizing tone against Sarah Palin in 2008. Earlier that cycle, while still waging his own longshot campaign for the Democratic nomination, he got off one of the better lines of the campaign with a crack about Rudy Giuliani, saying that there were only three things he includes in every sentence: "a noun, a verb, and 9/11."
The vice president surely would love to pay back all the West Wing aides who make condescending comments about him by showing up Obama -- and coming to his rescue -- in the debate competition.
Romney's paid media strategy must improve
There's no shortage of reports lately about the extent to which the Obama campaign has swamped Romney's paid media efforts in battlegrounds.
There have also been complaints about the quality of Romney's ads. The most memorable GOP spot this cycle has been the one produced by the Republican National Committee, which closed with a tag line about how it was "OK" for voters to make a change, seeking to soothe those who voted for Obama but are disappointed in his presidency.
Further, a close-to-broke Romney campaign in August barely did any advertising during the Democratic National Convention, ceding the playing field to the Obama campaign in targeted states.
The fact that the unemployment rate fell below 8 percent takes away a key Romney talking point over the past two years -- in order to make his case on the economy, he'll have to rely on other stats and an empathetic display about how many people still are unemployed.
The first presidential debate has been widely called as a winner for Romney, giving his team reams of footage for sharper ads. It remains to be seen whether Romney's team will seize the moment, and in which states.
"They need to start outspending Obama [and his] allies on TV in all the battlegrounds, including Wisconsin," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine. "I think they need to put a least one more state into play, perhaps Pennsylvania, and force Obama to defend it on TV in Philadelphia."
In addition to a TV strategy that needs to be on par with Obama's, Romney's campaign needs a ground game that can compete. His campaign has indicated in private conversations with supporters that it feels strong in this department. This needs to be more than bluster, especially with early voting having begun in more than 35 states.
Romney must stop playing small ball
For all the complaints from some of Romney's senior advisers about the process-obsessed political press, few national candidates have spent more time talking process than Romney.
This is going to have to stop if he wants to win. He's already begun on that track, managing to stick to a consistent message for a few days -- something that had eluded him for weeks.
Most weeks since the GOP primaries wrapped up have been marked by a conservative columnist urging Romney to "go big," or some version of that. Now is the time for that to happen -- press conferences arranged around surprise visits to the Solyndra plant, for instance, need to be a thing of the past.
His foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute on Monday is another moment for him to project a large vision and close the stature gap.
Romney needs to "keep showing America he'd be a better president," said Republican strategist Bruce Haynes of Purple Strategies. "Run like a leader, like he wants the job worse than Obama. Like he knows what's at stake and believes in both America and himself."
He added, "He didn't look or act and talk like a politician the other night. He was somebody who looked and sounded like he wanted to get something done and had great confidence in his plan to do it. If he is that candidate, and the content his campaign generates reflects that candidate, he can win. The only negative is it took this long for all of America to meet the real Mitt Romney. But now that guy is on stage, he needs to stay out there."
Obama needs to make a mistake
This highlights how Romney's fate is in significant measure not in his own hands. But there are plenty of ways Obama could help his opponent. This includes everything from a slip-up on the campaign trail -- one that actually resonates, as opposed to the frothy gaffes du jour on both sides that have done little to change the fundamentals of the race -- to a policy move.
The biggest potential problem for Obama would seem to relate to the Middle East, either in the form of the investigations into the violence at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi or if the situation between Turkey and Syria were to blow up.
The potential for an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran happening before the election was erased when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his U.N. General Assembly speech, changed his timeline for such a measure to next spring -- a major course-shift on an issue that Romney has focused on for much of the campaign.
In order for Romney to look like a credible alternative, it would help to have fresh evidence from Obama underscoring the sense of disappointment some persuadable voters have with him.
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