By Amie Parnes and Niall Stanage - 09/20/12 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama has been going to the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Washington headquarters for debate practices with former adviser Anita Dunn, who has been brought back into the fold ahead of the presidential first debate, scheduled for Oct. 3.
The most recent session took place last Friday, and included other advisers who helped guide Obama through his 2008 debates: White House senior adviser David Plouffe and White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. Dunn, Obama’s former communications adviser, is helping the campaign down the stretch and the debates have become “part of her portfolio,” a source says.
The first presidential debate is less than two weeks away, and both sides believe it could be a final, decisive moment in the race, as the initial general election debate almost always attracts a larger TV audience than later encounters.
Aides have kept a tight lid on the details of the practice sessions. But Jen Psaki, Obama’s traveling press secretary, this week offered a glimpse of what the president might be trying to improve upon behind the scenes.
“The shorter format of the debates is not always conducive to somebody who gives comprehensive, substantive answers,” Psaki told reporters.
Psaki added that the president and his team are aware that Obama’s tendency to be professorial and verbose is a “challenge,” and that he cannot give a “five-minute explanation for an issue.”
While Psaki’s comments are aimed in part at lowering expectations, debating is not Obama’s strongest suit. His “you’re likable enough, Hillary” comment, directed at then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in a debate just before the New Hampshire Democratic primary, was one of his most conspicuous missteps in 2008.
But those close to Obama seem to exude a degree of confidence this year, especially because Romney has been on the defensive since the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last month.
Romney’s preferred message — about the economy’s ills and what he would do to remedy them — has been submerged under an avalanche of bad headlines recently.
He came under fire for his comments on Libya last week, media reports have asserted that his campaign is riven by infighting and, most dramatically of all, a covertly filmed video was released in which Romney told campaign donors that 47 percent of Americans would vote for Obama because they perceive themselves as “victims” who are entitled to government aid.
“I think Obama comes into this with a lot less pressure than Romney,” said one former White House aide. “Romney is approaching the point where the only play he can make is a Hail Mary. He has to do something really remarkable in the debate to make up for the fact that he has been unremarkable since the convention.”
Observers say Team Obama needs to maintain the status quo, while Romney needs to change the dynamics of the race.
For Romney, “if you are behind, you have to definitively win,” said Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan. “It can’t be a split decision. He has to provide his campaign with enough momentum to change things. He needs to provide that, especially in the first debate. He is definitely going to try to land a knockout.”
But Kall said that could backfire.
“Sometimes when you are trying for that knockout, that’s the moment when you are most vulnerable to a counterpunch,” he said.
Still, it is not all doom and gloom for Romney. Despite his recent travails, the race remains close, with some recent polls showing the disappearance of the favorable “bounce” Obama received in the wake of the Democratic National Convention. On Wednesday, Gallup’s tracking poll showed Obama with a lead of just a single percentage point.
The Romney camp, meanwhile, is also showing its abilities when it comes to managing expectations.
“Presidential debates are always important, and the governor is preparing for them in a serious manner,” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an email, adding, “President Obama is the most gifted speaker in modern political history, so it is hard to imagine anyone outscoring him in debate points.”
Democrats say they have the upper hand.
“The basic fundamentals of this race have been set up,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who helped then-Vice President Al Gore prepare for his clashes with George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. “The Obama campaign has successfully shifted the burden of proof in this election to Romney. [Obama’s] reference point needs to be: How do you address every single question in a way that keeps the burden of proof on Romney?”
Providing some insight into debate preparations, Lehane said Obama would want to have 15 to 20 lines prepared in advance.
“Sometimes it’s a question of scripting those out as if it’s a play, almost,” he said.
Steve Elmendorf, who served as the deputy campaign manager to the Kerry campaign, added that Obama shouldn’t have “too many voices” in the room. “You don’t want to over-prepare,” he said.
While aides were being tight-lipped about the details of the debate sessions, so was the man “playing” Romney in the debate practice sessions.
Asked on Wednesday if he was having fun portraying Romney, Kerry wouldn’t entertain any questions on his newfound role.
He considered the question for a moment, said “I’m not ...” but then caught himself. He then sighed and rolled his eyes as he told The Hill, “No comments on that.”
— Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.