For a preview, look to primary debates

When predicting how Mitt Romney will perform in Wednesday night’s presidential debate, the political gods have bestowed several data points from the more than 20 debates and forums Romney participated in during the primary season.

During those match-ups, some clear strengths and weaknesses emerged, and because many were repeated in debate after debate, it’s safe to say they’ll show up in the first presidential showdown as well. 


• Discipline: During the primary debates, Romney’s ability to be short and concise contrasted dramatically with GOP rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who tended to drone on. Even though Romney was consistently treated like the front-runner (and theoretically entitled to more time), he never used it as an excuse to go on long monologues.

During a January debate in Florida, for example, he pounded Gingrich over the first 30 minutes, then, once he’d scored his points, quickly retreated into safer, quieter territory. Does that mean he’s an uneven debater? No, it means he picks his battles and in doing so minimizes the chances to hang himself.

It was a strong and favorable contrast with his primary opponents, and it could wind up giving him the edge over President Obama.

The president is known for being verbose, and chief strategist David Axelrod recently admitted that was one area of concern for the campaign.

“He’s got to speak shorter, that’s all,” he told Reuters. Concision, after all, tends to portray confidence and strength, while endless hedging and run-on sentences tend to confirm viewers’ worst suspicions about politicians — that they won’t be clear out of fear of political reprisal.

Romney’s smile might not be as big as Obama’s, but stylistically, his superior brevity is likely to score him points and help address voter concerns that he’s simply another politician who substitutes endless verbiage for substance.

• Savvy: Romney’s handed Obama plenty of material to attack him with, including a riff at a private fundraiser where Romney claimed that 47 percent of Americans “believe that they are victims.”

But if the primary debates taught us anything, they showed us just how good Romney can be at turning defense into offense. 

During the final primary debate in Florida last January, Gingrich attacked him for his personal finances — ground that Obama will certainly tread. In this particular case, Gingrich tied Romney to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by noting that Romney owned shares of the troubled groups.

Romney quickly countered by explaining they were blind trusts, and then swung back.

“Have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie and Freddie Mac.” 

It’s rare that Gingrich is left speechless, but for a moment, Romney’s counterattack did the unthinkable to the former House Speaker, and he stammered while the audience exploded.

Thus, in Wednesday’s debate, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Romney to quickly land a counterpunch that throws Obama off-balance. One way Romney might turn a lemon into lemonade is by bringing up Obama’s own indecorous comments at a private fundraiser in 2008 when he said it wasn’t surprising that some Midwesterners “cling to guns or religion” in the face of economic frustrations.  


• Testiness: Like most human beings, both candidates can bristle when they’re challenged, and Romney had his share of moments during the debates. Two in particular stand out. 

The first came when he, somewhat threateningly, put a hand on Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s shoulder while the two were sparring over illegal immigrants who had once worked for Romney. 

The second came during a debate in Iowa when he and Perry were arguing over Romney’s past support for the individual mandate. As the two interrupted each other repeatedly, Romney suggested a $10,000 bet to resolve the situation.

It’s instructive to look at the common themes in both exchanges. 

First, Perry was the antagonist in both scenarios. For all their relentless attacks, Gingrich and Santorum never provoked Romney the way Perry did. That suggests that certain personalities rub Romney the wrong way. It’s unclear whether Obama will strike Romney as a Perry type or as a Santorum/Gingrich type, but Romney’s ability to maintain his cool might depend on that distinction.

Second, both moments of bristle with Perry were brought on by challenges to Romney’s personal integrity, and not over his political prescriptions. Thus, note how he responds when Obama inevitably questions the strength of his convictions and whether or not he’s flip-flopped. 

Third, both the arm on the shoulder and offer of a $10,000 bet came after extended, heated exchanges. How much back-and-forth moderator Jim Lehrer will allow in Romney’s debate against Obama is unknown.

• Too technical: Some might be calling for both candidates to get more specific, but it’s hard to do so in debates that are usually dominated by sound bites, and the fact is that most viewers zone out during extended policy discussions.

And although his discipline is usually impressive, Romney has shown a propensity to occasionally veer into the arcane when talking about policy. Or, as Paul Ryan might call it, to “wonk out.”

Early in the GOP debate process, he was asked how he’d engineer an economic turnaround, and he answered that “seven things” needed to be done. He then proceeded to list all seven. Viewers don’t want a PowerPoint presentation. They want a powerful point or two that they can easily digest and talk about the next day. For better or worse, it’s a simple fact that voters are much more likely to remember Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, for example, than seven points anchored by traditional talking points.

Heinze, the founder of, is a member of staff at The Hill.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on

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