TOPICS > Politics

Candidates Fine-Tune Their Messages Before First 2012 Presidential Debate

October 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Days before the first 2012 presidential debate, Mitt Romney and President Obama work to craft their messages on the economy, health care, the role of government and governing. Judy Woodruff talks to the Rothenberg Political Report's Stu Rothenberg and Susan Page of USA Today for more on the candidates' preparations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn to the presidential campaign, with both candidates awaiting their high-stakes meeting Wednesday night.

Workers prepared the debate space at the University of Denver, while the candidates prepared themselves for Wednesday night’s first face-off. It’s to focus on domestic policy and will be moderated by the PBS “NewsHour”‘s own Jim Lehrer.

Republican Mitt Romney made his way westward from Boston with a rally in Denver planned for this evening. President Obama was in Henderson, Nevada, getting ready. Last night, he tried to lower expectations for himself at a rally in Las Vegas.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know folks in the media are speculating already on who is going to have the best zingers.

WOMAN: You are!

BARACK OBAMA: I don’t know about that. You know, the — who is going to put the most points on the board?

WOMAN: You are!

CROWD: You are!

BARACK OBAMA: No, no, Gov. Romney, he is a good debater. I’m just OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By contrast, a prominent Romney supporting was out hyping his candidate’s debating skills.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: I have seen Mitt Romney do this before. He’s going to come in Wednesday night. He’s going to lay out his vision for America.

He’s going to contrast what his view is with what the president’s record is and the president’s view for the future. And this whole race is going to be turned upside-down come Thursday morning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Likewise, President Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, offered this assessment on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

DAVID PLOUFFE, senior White House advisor: Challengers tend to benefit from debates. We have expected all along that Gov. Romney will have a good night.

He’s prepared more than any candidate in history, and he’s shown himself to be a very, very good debater through the years. So, we understand that this is an important moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And more important moments are to come. The second presidential debate will be a town hall format at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on October 16.

That’s to be followed by a foreign policy debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., on October 22.

The vice presidential debate will be held October 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Heading into the series, the latest polls show that nationally the Obama-Romney race is still close. But the president is moving ahead in most of the battleground states.

To get a sense of where this race stands and what each campaign believes the candidates must do in those debates, we’re joined by our regular duo, Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.

Welcome back to both of you.

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Thanks.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we just reported again, Stu, nationally, the race looks pretty close, but in the battleground states, the president seems to have lead. What do you make of all that?

STUART ROTHENBERG: No, I think that’s exactly the case. National numbers show an Obama lead by two to four points. Some polls have it a little bit more. But it’s in the swing states, particularly critical Ohio, where the Obama lead appears to be four or eight points, something in that range.

Judy, I think there are two possible regulations. One is state-specific factors that are affecting voters in those states, so, for example, in Virginia and Ohio, a better-than-average national economy.

But the other conclusion, it seems to me that you have to arrive at, is campaigns matter. And the Obama folks are running a good campaign with good ads, good messaging in these swing states.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s where they’re putting all their efforts.

SUSAN PAGE: They’re also running more ads. They have run more ads now. They’re running more ads now. They ran more ads in the spring. They had more money to run ads in the summer.

And that was a time when they were really attacking Gov. Romney, trying to undermine his credentials on the economy. The Romney campaign for financial reasons and also for their — following their own strategy didn’t respond as fully, didn’t spend as much money on ads as the Obama people did.

And I think this is a bet that the Obama campaign is now thinking they have won.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, maybe it’s paying off.

SUSAN PAGE: I think it’s clearly paying off.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think there’s no question about it that the Romney folks held back, figuring that they could move numbers late. Turned out the president’s campaign moved numbers early.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about these two debates, Stu. What does each campaign think it needs to do on Wednesday night? Let’s start with Romney.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, normally, when you have these presidential debates, the challenger needs to look presidential.

I don’t think the Romney folks think that’s a problem. He looks like a president. He has experience and maturity.

But clearly they need to change the dynamic of the race. All the narrative is bad for the challenger. The Obama campaign has been really successful in making the campaign about Mitt Romney personally, his values, who he stands for. I think the Romney folks have to change that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think?

SUSAN PAGE: I think that’s right. He needs to do two things. He needs to be on the attack, on the offense against President Obama. He needs to tie people’s unhappiness with the economy to Obama’s own policies, because now we have a lot of people unhappy about the economy, but not necessarily blaming the president for that.

The other thing is, he needs to convey to people that he understands something about the struggles of their lives because his biggest deficit in the polling that we do is that sense that he doesn’t have a sense — he doesn’t care about people like me and he doesn’t understand the troubles and the problems that people like me have in their lives.

And that 47 percent video has been very damaging, I think, for Gov. Romney on that point. So, he needs to do two things that are different and maybe hard to do, both of them simultaneously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you. How much contradiction, how much of a tension do they feel in what he needs to do?

SUSAN PAGE: This is so high-stakes for Gov. Romney. This is his best — this is a close race, but it’s a race that’s bending toward President Obama.

And this 90 minutes on stage in Denver Wednesday night is Gov. Romney’s best chance to change that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, what about the president? What does his campaign believe he has got to do on Wednesday?

SUSAN PAGE: You know, an even-steven kind of debate would be fine with them, because things are going in their direction. But he wants to keep — if Romney needs to be on offense all the time, he probably wants to put Romney on defense for some of this.

And he probably also wants to address the idea that this disappointment in his economic performance and make the case as he’s been making in his campaign appearances that he inherited a difficult situation, things are moving in the right direction, although he understands people are still hurting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see what the Obama camp believes they have got to do?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, I think Susan is right.

I think they don’t want to be on the defensive. They don’t want to make the mistake. You know, this is the kind of campaign where Mitt Romney to do more than have a draw. He needs to make a case. and I think it’s going to be awfully hard for him to close the empathy given the context.

The Washington Post/ABC had a 33-point empathy gap. So I think he really has to try to change the dynamic.

And it’s up to the president to answer each and all of the charges. So far, the Obama campaign has done a good job in talking about whose fault is the economy and how they have tried to respond.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does it mean to change the dynamic of the race, though? That sounds like a big task.


I think, Judy, at the end of this — or the day after the debate, we have to be taking not about Bain and Mitt Romney’s money and whether Mitt Romney cares at all about 47 percent of the country.

We have to be talking about the president’s performance, what the president should have done, could have done, and what Mitt Romney wants to do over the next month and how that is different from how Barack Obama would handle a second term.

SUSAN PAGE: But these debates can change the dynamics. We have had 10 presidential elections with televised debates. And in three of them, one candidate went into the first debate leading and another candidate came out of the last debate leading.

It’s turned campaigns in 1960, in 1980 and in 2000. So it can be done. But it’s a high task, for sure.

STUART ROTHENBERG: And, remember, we have been campaigning — or we haven’t been campaigning — the candidates have been campaigning for six months now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sometimes, it feels like we have.


STUART ROTHENBERG: So it’s a little different than in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you agree with Susan that a debate can change the trajectory of a race?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I do. I think it can, but it doesn’t — it won’t automatically change a trajectory, right.

I think something significant has to happen. One of the contestants, one of the debaters has to say something that produces a lot of controversy over two or three days or do something, whether it’s a — make a face, look at his watch.

Something has to happen that the voters look at and it changes how they evaluate the candidates and their vote decision.

Judy, the way I would put it is everybody needs to take a collective breath after this and say, well, wait a minute, maybe I need to reassess the campaign. That’s what the Romney folks need.

SUSAN PAGE: And we talk about set this race is. And about 80 percent of Americans — of registered voters say they are not going to change their minds.

But that means 20 percent are either undecided or more likely only loosely committed to a candidate and might change their minds if the debate or the series of debates, all three debates, prompted them to take a second look.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So there are some persuadables.

But quickly to both of you, in foreign policy, in the last few days, we’re hearing a lot more from the Romney camp about mistakes they say the president made when it came to the attack in Libya. Mitt Romney has an op-ed today in The Wall Street Journal criticizing.

Is this likely to make a difference? This first debate is supposed to be about domestic issues.

SUSAN PAGE: You know, I think the White House is open to criticism that they mischaracterized the nature of the Benghazi attack initially, tried to downplay it, said it wasn’t terrorism, it was a mob action.

But I don’t think this is the kind of issue that moves voters at a time when unemployment is 8.1 percent, when the foreclosures are still a huge problem. It seems to me it’s an opening, but it’s not a game-changing kind of opening.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I agree, but if you’re the Romney campaign, you look for any opportunity to put the president on the defensive and raise questions about him as a leader.

And that’s what I think they’re trying to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s what they think they’re doing.

All right. Well, we are delighted to have both of you back with us this Monday night. Stu Rothenberg, Susan Page, thank you.