Obama getting less debate practice than Romney

President Obama arrives in New York.
(Brendan Smialowski, AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — President Obama has blocked out three days to prepare for the October debates, but with the constant pressures that come with one of the world’s most important jobs, aides worry he may not get enough practice at the podium.

The debate retreat, scheduled to start Sunday in Henderson, Nev., a suburb that sprawls away from Las Vegas, includes time for the daily battery of presidential meetings, leaving room for three afternoon debate sessions — if no crises flare up. Obama has already canceled some debate preparation because of events in the Middle East, said Jen Psaki, his campaign press secretary.

“He has had to balance the management of world events, governing, time out campaigning,” she said. “He’ll have less time than we anticipated to sharpen and cut down his tendency to give long, substantive answers.”


That’s the polite way to say the former University of Chicago law professor and U.S. senator can be wordy, a concern among his aides, who believe Republican Mitt Romney will be a serious debate adversary.

In September 2008, Obama’s “debate camp” was held in an old hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., where the candidate practiced all day with a brief break to campaign. At night, he did a full-length mock debate on a replica of the real stage for each debate, according to the campaign’s manager, David Plouffe, who recounted the scenes in his book, “The Audacity to Win.”

Aides to the president will not say whether they are bringing the same attention to detail to his practice sessions next week.

Romney has worked on his strategy for weeks, prepping at his home in New Hampshire and at his Boston headquarters, but also squeezing in time as he travels. On Sunday, at a hotel in Los Angeles, he huddled with confidant Beth Myers and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who takes the role of Obama in Romney’s mock debates.

The stakes are high for the GOP nominee in the first debate on Oct. 3 in Denver, which is seen as one of his best chances to reignite his campaign after a string of unfavorable headlines about internal squabbles and controversial remarks. Presidential debates will also be held on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Romney demurred when asked Sunday whether he needed to win the debate, saying his job is to “describe what I believe in a way that the American people will understand and make the choice that they feel is right for America.”


In contrast to Romney, the president has been deeply immersed in virtually every aspect of the U.S. government for four years. He has not only executed policy, but has also routinely explained it to the American people and debated it with prominent GOP opponents.

Allan Louden, a professor of political communications and a presidential debate expert at Wake Forest University, said that didn’t mean Obama would be able to make his argument in an eloquent, pithy way. “True preparation is about familiarity with the material,” he said. “It takes practice to make your most important points in a concise, memorable way.”

During debate preparation, candidates practice rhetorical maneuvers to corner an opponent as well as solid comebacks to attacks, Louden said.

But debates aren’t just scripted performances, he said. “Debates, as much as they’re about prepared material, have a sneaky way of letting you see the person,” Louden said. “That’s what’s so great about them.”

Romney has had more recent practice than Obama, having participated in numerous debates during the rough-and-tumble GOP primary, and Obama analysts think he displayed a talent for landing sharp attacks and rejoinders. To some degree, that assessment reflects a concerted effort by the White House political team to downplay expectations for the president.

But Obama’s political advisors don’t seem to be faking their angst about his schedule. The tug of war over Obama’s time inevitably pits them against administration officials as they put together the daily calendar.


This week’s schedule — which includes campaign trips to Ohio and Virginia on Wednesday and Thursday after his speech Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly — leaves a little time for Obama to do some reading, and perhaps more formal study in the evenings. But Obama also has a long-standing habit of college-style cramming. Some of his most important remarks have been composed on the fly.

Psaki still thinks the pressure is on Romney, saying: “He has been training for them like an Olympic decathlete, starting earlier than any candidate in modern history and running through mock debates five times in 48 hours.”

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.