Debate Breakthrough

October 3rd, 2012

Much has been made about what the next possible game-changing event of this year’s presidential election – an event that could possibly reshape the race, and turn the tide of who will be our next president.

Conventional wisdom says that it will be the upcoming debates.  On that point, I agree, as the nation turns its attention to the first debate this evening. However, the pundit class has set its sights on the first debate as the next big moment, one where the nation will again tune-in enmass to the watch and listen to the two men who are competing to be our leader for the next four years.

Both sides have begun to set expectations.  Romney’s team has compared Obama’s debate skills to baseball great Cy Young and Obama’s team has likewise pointed out how many debates Romney “won” on the Republican primary season.  Before Cicero is thrown into the discussion, let’s all agree that both Romney and Obama are both very intelligent and capable men who are up to the task.

Governor Romney has spent months in quiet preparation, trying to build upon his performances in the nearly two dozen Republican primary debates.  He has no doubt been working with sparring partner, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, on pithy comebacks to anticipated moderator questions and responses by President Obama.

President Obama too has been in deep preparation with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.  Kerry knows Romney and his record well, hailing from the same state.  Plus he has also been through this exercise before and knows firsthand what Obama faces on the national debate stage.  No doubt, Obama is working hard to knock off the cobwebs of four debate-less years.

But let me turn that conventional wisdom on its head just a bit.  While everyone is fixated on the first debate, I would argue that it is the second debate – the town hall style debate – that has the potential to shift the presidential race.  Why?  Because the town hall is the one format that does not lend itself to pre-packaged answers.

At the first debate, both Obama and Romney will stand on stage with a traditional moderator.  Both have surely anticipated the questions they will receive, the counter punches and counter-counter punches they want to land.  And while I hope for a solid Romney win in this debate, it seems more likely both men will be very well prepared and do well.

But a town hall is different, a town hall-style debate gives the candidate the opportunity – and the hazard – of showing who they really are, and it gives the audience an insight into the candidate.

This is why it is the perfect opportunity for Governor Romney to have a breakthrough moment, a breakthrough moment that will, in all likelihood, not be there under the structure and framework of a traditional debate with the President, an opportunity for a breakthrough moment of clarity and honesty.

The number one knock against Romney is that he is too robotic or unemotional..  The town hall gives Romney the opportunity to either reinforce this perception, or turn it into a misconception. This is where there is a giant window of opportunity for him.

How does Romney respond when a young mother from Peoria stands up, tells of her ill daughter’s plight with hospital stays, and asks what Romney’s plans are to fix the health care system?  Will Romney give a robotic, wonky answer?  Or will Romney relate to the mother, talk about his feelings when his own wife dealt with her diagnosis with MS, and how that period of his family’s journey inspired him to fight for women like his wife and this woman’s daughter?

This is a side of Romney that he does not show often, we only hear about it sparingly from his wife and his sons.  But it is the town hall style, the interaction found in real question and answer sessions that simply is not there in tradition debates, that gives Romney the opportunity to show the soul of the candidate.  And by all accounts, Governor Romney is a very good man, good husband, and compassionate person. That has been his private life.  And now it is time to share that with Americans so they too can see the heart and soul of the man they are considering to be their president.

As Americans, when we vote for President, we vote for more than just the policies – we vote for who the candidate is and what they represent.

Our economy is struggling and over 20 million Americans are either unemployed or underemployed.  An Ambassador was just killed on foreign soil by terrorists, and reports are swirling that the White House tried to gloss over this tragedy for political reasons.  For all purposes, President Obama should be well on his way to losing this election.

Governor Romney must use these debates to give voters a reason to vote for Mitt Romney the man and the Romney vision.  No question and answer session with Jim Lehrer will give Mitt Romney the opportunity to give that glimpse into his soul.

But an honest, relatable moment with a mom from Peoria can.

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