Mark Davis

I confess a certain fascination with debate prep. What is it, exactly?

What did Mitt Romney do that earned him such a commanding win in his first debate with President Obama? What did the President not do?

In the second debate, was President Obama better prepared, or just more energetic and focused? Could Mitt Romney have prevented an underwhelming moment on Libya with a few more drills alongside Rob Portman?

I raise these questions because as the final debate draws near, I wonder how Governor Romney’s time is best spent. Is it a matter of homework alone, or something deeper?

National Review’s Robert Costa has done some compelling reporting on Team Romney’s behind-the-scenes discipline, which obviously paid off in Denver. Sen. Portman is generous in his praise of a candidate who showed a tireless devotion to the task of absorbing data and engaging in mock debates.

But with just one opportunity left to make a case before tens of millions of people at once, the Romney campaign should consider a strong possibility: the homework is not what won it for him in Denver, and was not responsible for his best moments in the second debate Tuesday.

Absorbing numbers is a good thing. So is studying the style of an opponent. But Mitt Romney’s chances of winning over undecided voters Monday night does not hinge on encyclopedic knowledge or hours spent studying past Obama debates.

He will succeed with the same formula that brought him success in the first debate. To large numbers of uncommitted voters, he looked like a man who should be President of the United States.

A broad, nebulous concept, to be sure, but a vital factor in any successful run for the White House. Without regard to any particular quote or any particular moment, Romney exuded a vibe of confidence and competence that earned the approval of voters unsure of him mere hours before.

I had the chance to visit with Rick Santorum during a Texas visit this week. Recalling the debate that even MSNBC had to admit was a Romney win, he told attendees at a fundraiser: “I debated Mitt Romney twenty times. I never saw that guy.”

Santorum saw what many Republicans (and potential Republicans) saw-- a nominee who may have picked just the right time to become comfortable in conservative skin. This has led to the erosion of some doubts that have dogged his campaign, even as it steamrolled to the nomination.