Gaming the Presidential Debate

There are two amazing things about the upcoming debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama at Hofstra University on Tuesday night: everyone has an opinion about what each candidate should want to accomplish, and most of the advice being given is horse manure.

Not wanting to contribute to the dung being tossed around by the rest of the commentariat, we will forgo giving any counsel to the candidates and concentrate instead on how things are likely to play out.

In truth, it is Obama on the receiving end of most of that advice. After the devastating debacle in Denver, all liberals in the U.S. think they can help the president get his mojo back. Lanny Davis is serious when he suggests that Mr. Obama be respectful, be "firm and strong" when criticizing Romney's policy positions, and:

3) Most heretical of all — concede a little when you can when the truth requires that you made some mistakes in your first term — and aver that will make you a better president in the second term.

One can only ask what Mr. Davis is imbibing and request he share the brand with everyone. Barack Obama concede he made a mistake? He told Charlie Rose that his biggest mistake was not telling the American people stories about what he was doing.

Does that sound like a candidate eager to admit he blew it?

As for the president pulling a Biden on Romney by laughing, giggling, and contorting his face like a two year old with a soiled diaper, the Obama campaign is already saying they aren't going to do that:

“You should expect that he’s going to be firm but respectful in correcting the record and the times we expect Mitt Romney will hide from and distort his own policies,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Monday. “He’s energized and I expect he will also be making a passionate case.”

Obama's primary method of attack is mockery -- very unpresidential but effective on the stump. But how will it play in the town-hall format chosen for the debate? When the object of one's mockery and sarcasm is standing next to you, the tactic can backfire. Belittling an opponent in person can appear mean and small, something the president can't afford to do. Biden played that role in the vice presidential debate and it cost him some. But can the president get "tough" on Romney without the sarcasm? On such trifles will the debate hang.

For both candidates, it will be a zinger competition -- who can get off the most hellacious, gob-smacking, dagger-plunging one-liner of the evening. It has to be a little humorous to take away some of the sting, but it must be on point and on target. And it must be memorable and worthy of being endlessly looped on the cable nets for the next 48 hours. It also must impress the watching audience enough that the first blush of polls give a clear edge to the candidate.

Both men have expectation problems. A Pew survey before the first debate showed a majority of registered voters -- 51%-29% -- believed the president would win. With the bar set so low for him, Romney's strong, confident debate performance propelled him to something of an easy victory.

But Pew's latest shows that expectations for Obama have fallen some while Romney's have risen markedly. Voters still believe Obama will win, but the margin has narrowed to 41%-37%. Of course, this doesn't guarantee an Obama victory, but it makes it easier for him to meet the expectations of voters and the pundits.