The expectations game that has been going on before tonight’s presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has been hilariously goofy. It is as if each side is trying to pretend their guy just wandered in from a life of solitude in a monastery where talking is not allowed.
President Obama, at his best, is one of the most eloquent speakers ever to take up the big chair in the Oval Office. He may not be a stellar debater, but he held his own with Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2004 Democratic primary debates and easily outshone Sen. John McCain in the fall trio of face-to-face encounters. And despite the right wing blogosphere’s weird insistence that he cannot utter a coherent sentence without the aid of a teleprompter, Obama is far more articulate in unscripted situations than the last three Republican presidents.
For his part, Mitt Romney has a long debating history, starting with his failed Senate run against Ted Kennedy, his successful race for governor of Massachusetts and two runs for the Republican presidential nomination. After watching every debate of Romney’s career, Atlantic magazine’s James Fallows concluded that Romney is a very tough debater, as long as he is not forced to stray too far from well-rehearsed lines.
Despite their strong credentials, both the candidates and their surrogates have been trying to drive down expectations. Romney’s running mate, Paul D. Ryan, argued that while Obama “has done this before,” this is Romney's “first time on this kind of stage.” Well, not really, Paul, but nice try. Meanwhile, ex-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, an Obama supporter, said, “The president is going to lose the first debate. He’s not a great debater.”
In reality, both men can be expected to handily respond to any questions that are thrown at them. But it is not their words that count as much as the image they project on TV. We know that Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip and lack of makeup did him no good when he stood next to a suntanned John F. Kennedy in 1960. George H.W. Bush’s glance at his watch during his debate with Bill Clinton in 1992 made him appear too anxious to exit the stage. Al Gore’s audible sighing as George W. Bush spoke annoyed voters in 2000.
So, what will it be this time? Will a sarcastic Obama smirk betray too much arrogance? Will a nervous Romney shuffle combined with a couple of awkward eye blinks come off as befuddlement? Will the expectations game before the debate and the spin room analysis afterward prove as important as whatever the candidates do on stage? We will see.
The pressure is on. One errant sigh, one drop of sweat, one garbled thought have sunk candidacies in past debates. In truth, it is that single killer mistake we will all be watching for as the debates begin.