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.
The GOP base knows about his business acumen, his strong faith and his beautiful family. What we have wondered about is his passion for conservatism. Is it a recently discovered enthusiasm born of political expediency, or a genuine journey leading to the kind of enlightenment that yields a far better candidate and perhaps a great President?
So on Monday night, debate success will not stem from some skillfully-placed factoid about Syria or even a pithy retort the tenth time the President reminds us he got bin Laden.
Romney needs to address foreign policy the way he mastered domestic issues on October 3-- with the determination to take an unacceptable situation and make it better.
It is unacceptable that Iran marches toward a nuclear weapon without a steadfast American response.
It is unacceptable that America has forfeited a leadership role around the world, leaving power vacuums to be filled by terrorists and tyrants.
It is unacceptable that we seem more interested in coddling the Muslim world than in confronting the portion of it that still threatens us.
It is unacceptable that we have neglected our alliance with Israel.
And to make it as fresh as today’s headlines, it is completely unacceptable to hear of embassy personnel security requests going ignored, and for the resulting deaths to be dishonored by a politically-driven campaign of deceptions.
Only the most entrenched Democrat partisans can assert that this presidency has been a foreign policy success. With moderator Bob Schieffer unlikely to run interference as Candy Crowley did, President Obama will be left to defend the decline of America on a world stage still swirling with dangers.
In shattering the falsehoods leveled at him by Obama attack ads, Mitt Romney has offered himself up to independents and undecideds as a thoroughly palatable alternative to the President on domestic issues. Similar success on foreign policy matters could seal the deal, establishing a momentum storyline that could spur the polls-- and thus the election-- to break his way.