Romney Has Big Opportunity in Coming Weeks
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines! This is it, folks. The real drama is about to begin. After months of nasty back and forth between the presidential campaigns of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the battle is for the White House is about to be engaged in earnest and the stakes could not be bigger.
Here is a thumbnail guide to the major campaign events to come over the next several weeks leading up to the election on November 6th.
Romney Picks a Vice President
This will come before the Republican National Convention begins on August 27thand will be important because the choice and decision-making process behind it will tell us something about how Mitt Romney’s mind works. All the experts predict Romney will make a safe choice, something along the lines of Ohio Senator Rob Portman or former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.
There’s been recent speculation the campaign might go for a slightly bolder pick like Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan or Florida Senator Marco Rubio. But the Romney campaign overall is known for its caution and seems determined to avoid the kind of thinking that led John McCain to pick the untested and largely unknown Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate four years ago.
Romney has said repeatedly the top qualification for his pick will be readiness to assume the presidency right away, so that would seem to eliminate most out-of-the-box picks that might appeal to some of the party faithful. Whomever is chosen, the Romney camp hopes to reignite interest in their candidate and in his campaign just as the political conventions are about to get underway.
Romney’s Moment in the Spotlight
Republicans meet in Tampa, Florida for their nominating convention the week of August 27th, culminating with Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech the night of Thursday, August 30th. Make no mistake, this will be a huge moment in the campaign not only for Romney and the Republicans but for the entire country. Convention acceptance speeches are one of those moments in a presidential campaign that offer a huge opportunity, especially for challengers.
In recent months the Obama campaign has gone all out trying to depict Romney in a negative light with a barrage of TV ads, especially in the crucial states where this year’s election will be decided. The convention speech will give Romney a chance to reintroduce himself to the American public and cut through the blitz of attack ads.
Even though Romney emerged as the presumptive nominee after winning in the party primary elections and caucuses, he has yet to really connect with voters, especially that fairly small pool of undecided voters who will determine the outcome of what is expected to be a very close election. Romney has to humanize himself, talk about his family, his Mormon religion and his core beliefs.
Americans may be willing to turn Barack Obama out of office, but before they do, many undecided and independent voters are going to want to know what Romney is made of and whether he has “the right stuff” to be president.
I can recall the energy at the 1992 Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden in New York when Bill Clinton gave a rousing speech that whipped up excitement among delegates in the hall and gave television viewers their first lengthy look at the man challenging incumbent President George H. W. Bush. Clinton trailed going into that convention but his speech and a follow-on bus tour sent him soaring in the polls and he never looked back on his way to victory that November.
President Obama’s Pitch to Middle America
As for President Obama, he’s got a slightly different assignment when it comes to his convention speech. There is no getting around the fact that the president has a record on the economy that can be tough to defend. That’s why there have been the negative attacks on Romney trying to make him unelectable, much as the George W. Bush re-election campaign was able to do to Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
The president is going to have to take another shot at convincing Middle America that he’s on their side and that the country can’t afford to turn away from his policies now and take another gamble on Romney for the next four years.
The president, I believe, actually has a trickier task in using his speech to try and convince undecided voters that he deserves another four years. It can’t be all about attacking Romney, either. Mr. Obama will have to articulate a vision going forward that acknowledges the economic setbacks of the past four years while at the same time lays out a convincing narrative as to why he should be re-elected and, in a sense, given a second chance.
Debates Likely Crucial
Beyond the party conventions, the stretch run of the campaign really begins and then hits full speed with the first presidential debate, scheduled for October 3rd. The two presidential candidates will debate three times, with one of the sessions devoted to foreign policy. The two vice presidential candidates will debate once.
Since the election is expected to be close, we can expect the debates to have a major impact on the outcome. It will be a last chance for voters to see the candidates in action and how they think on their feet. But it’s not always what they say in the debates that matters, sometimes it’s how they look.
Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow in the first 1960 debate with John Kennedy didn’t help him with TV viewers, even though radio listeners gave Nixon the edge. President George H.W. Bush was caught checking his watch during a debate in 1992, leaving viewers with the impression he was bored and disengaged. Al Gore’s strange body language in a 2000 debate with George W. Bush and his sighs provided some memorable moments, and not in a good way for the former vice president.
In 1980, challenger Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter had only one debate late in the campaign. That debate is memorable because Reagan asked voters a key question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” That turned what had been a close election into a rout in the final days and you can expect that Mitt Romney will try some variation of that in his upcoming debates with President Obama.
Candidates are often wary of the debates, worried about misspeaking, making a mistake or fumbling an unanticipated question. For those reasons, the debates do provide some potential for the unexpected. And in a close presidential race in the final days, sometimes the unexpected can become pivotal.