Well that once-in-a-generation debate performance took place last week, suddenly vaulting Mitt Romney into the lead in polls for the first time in many months. He did what he needed to do, while President Obama mailed it in. It could be the 'game changer' although with less than a month ago,
my Canada AM debate preview (fast-forward 18:45 in). And this is how I predicted it on CPAC [Canadian Parliamentary Channel] just before the debate. As well, I had a sense that the debate may prove to be that once in a generation experience. No one - including me - predicted what a wipe it would be for Romney!
What Happened to Obama?
This has led to significant rumors in the media as to what happened to Obama? He wasn't properly prepared? Had a really bad strategy to let Romney off the hook? Annoyed because he had to spend his 20th wedding anniversary with Mitt instead of Michelle? He wasn't feeling well (according to Al Gore)? Who knows! My sense is that he completely under-estimated Romney; thought he didn't need to put the kind of extensive role-plays into it, combined with being a tad exhausted. The important take-away is that one more performance like that and President Obama may be a one-term President.
The Vice-Presidential Debate
Which brings us to Thursday night's Vice Presidential debate. Usually,
these debates play a role as an interesting minor league for political
junkies only. However, every once in a while, they can trump the
Presidential debates in sound bites and media buzz.
The most famous
example of this was the shellacking that the Dems' Sen. Lloyd Bentsen
gave to the GOP's Sen. Dan Quayle with his "Jack Kennedy was a friend of
mine. Senator you're no Jack Kennedy. "Devastating, but ultimately it
didn't mean a hill of beans as George H. W. Bush (41) beat Mike Dukakis
handily on election day.
1. Do no harm. All Vice Presidential candidates do not want to be remembered as the one who brought down the ticket. Sarah Palin surprised many critics by actually doing well against the more experienced Joe Biden in the 2008 debate.
2. Attack the head of the ticket more than the VP candidate. Bob Dole was Gerald Ford's 'hatchet man' in 1976 and was almost too good at the role. He over-reached when he characterized the World Wars of the 20th Century as 'Democrat wars'. Ouch! The Ford team had to walk that one back. In this debate, there will be extra pressure on Joe Biden to point out what the Obama campaign feels are the statements of Mitt Romney in the first debate (most of which Obama ignored). Ryan will be a strong attack dog but will keep his focus on Obama as he does it.
3. Manage expectations well. That is particularly important in this debate as Joe Biden, although greatly experienced, has been stereo-typed as the master of the gaffe, but amiable and likeable. Paul Ryan on the other hand is largely unknown to most voters and Biden will try to define him clearly in negative terms.
4. Define the other guy while defining themselves. As the newcomer, Ryan will naturally attract some hard hits from Biden who will try to contrast his previous well-documented positions on health care and the budget, in particular. What is interesting here, is they are both Catholic blue-collar men who have a terrific ability to resonate with the middle class, suburban voter in a way that both Romney and Obama have more difficulty doing.
5. Target the swing voters in swing states. What has become even more clear following Romney's first debate success, is that he has to gain more traction in the swing states. Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Virginia are critically important. Ryan has not succeeded to date in bringing his home state of Wisconsin along, and will clearly want to highlight his Wisconsin roots in order to generate momentum in that swing state.
6. Show they have vision and energy for the future. If Romney loses, then Paul Ryan becomes the automatic leading candidate. Conversely, if Obama wins, Biden has a chance to compete toe-to-toe with Hilary Clinton and others. So, while each will deny adamantly any such interest, a powerful debate performance can be an excellent career move.