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Gaming the Presidential Debate

For Romney, there is little doubt he will be on the defensive more than he was in Denver. The Obama campaign has already said they are going to bring up the "47%" gaffe as well as criticism of Romney's stint at Bain Capital. Expect Romney to try and turn those criticisms into attacks on Obama's record. There are also indications that the president is once again going to go after Romney's tax plan, as well as the studies cited by Paul Ryan that are supposedly favorable. As Jen Rubin points out, this is a criticism easily brushed aside:

When Obama goes into his routine that Romney’s tax plan is a $5 trillion cut, he should ask the president why he keeps repeating disproven talking points. Likewise on Medicare, the president seems unwilling to admit he’s taking from Medicare to pay for Obamacare (Vice President Biden said that they were just “saving” money from Medicare) and unable to characterize his opponents’ Medicare plan honestly. Without getting too exasperated, Romney can certainly remind Obama, “We went through this all last time and I can do it again, but your version still isn’t true.”

Not to put words in Romney's mouth (and in violation of my "no advice" rule), but since the press can't or won't ask him, why not inquire about the president's own plan to save Medicare? Or his plan to cut the budget deficit? Or his plan to create jobs? Exposing the vacuousness of Obama's second-term agenda would seem to be a no-brainer.

We should expect the president to employ several variations of the word "lie" when discussing Romney's agenda. He will also almost certainly try to paint Romney as a rabid, fire-breathing right-wing nutcase. Neither tactic has worked so far and one shouldn't expect the debate to be any different.

For Romney's part, he will tread carefully on criticizing the president on Libya, but will make the case that Obama blew it nevertheless. It is an issue that is still percolating below the surface of the campaign and is one significant revelation away from becoming a major problem for the president. But Romney cannot be seen as exploiting the deaths of our diplomats, and he will stick to the facts, which are damaging enough anyway, and eschew hyperbole.

Obviously, Obama has a tougher job even though expectations have been lowered for him. But he is not in unfamiliar territory. The president has had bad weeks and months before, as Time's Michael Scherer points out:

In early June, shortly after President Obama stumbled in a press conference by saying, “the private sector is doing fine,” his senior White House and campaign aides began an e-mail chain with each other. It listed all the other times over the last six years that the media had declared Barack Obama on the ropes, like the time in 2008 that footage leaked of Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, and the time the debt ceiling deal blew up. As the message bounced from inbox to inbox, the list of setbacks got longer, and the point was unmistakable: Everyone needed to keep a little perspective. The previous two weeks in June–with a bad jobs report, a dipping stock market, a teetering European Union and Obama’s own gaffe–were just a passing phase. Team Obama knew how to bounce back.

And bouncing back is easier for Obama than it is most other presidents. What makes Obama tough to beat is that he has a very high floor of support nationwide, especially in the swing states. His approval rating has fallen below 40% only a couple of times and almost immediately risen above it. It makes Romney's job very difficult indeed because, in effect, the GOP candidate has to lower the president's floor of support in order to overcome what is certainly going to be an Obama advantage in get-out-the-vote operations on Election Day.

The most immediate way he can do that is to win the debate by convincing voters his plan for the economy is sound. While the president is busy criticizing Romney for something he allegedly did at Bain Capital, Romney will be talking jobs, jobs, and jobs again. The contrast should be telling.

A town-hall format might seem to favor the president, but don't bet on it. Romney showed in Denver he is quick on his feet and more than able to handle himself in ad-lib situations. The question will be how big a hand moderator Candy Crowely intends to take in the proceedings. She claims that she will not be a "fly on the wall" and that she will "react organically" to the proceedings.

Somehow, I don't think that means she's going to react  like a carrot in a garden.