Obama, Romney face similar debate test: Staying cool under fire

President Obama and Mitt Romney face a similar test heading into Wednesday night’s presidential debate: staying cool while under your opponent’s fire.

At their first debate in Denver — when tens of millions of voters will tune in to see the competitors clash in Denver — each candidate will have to do his best to keep calm despite the other’s best efforts.

For the front-running Obama, that means not being thrown off balance by what GOP aides promise will be a vigorous and enthusiastic attack by Romney on the president’s economic and foreign-policy record. It means keeping his cool while under attack by a candidate he is said to disdain.

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For Romney, it means delivering a strong debate performance that will shift the momentum of the race. Romney generally performed well during this cycle’s GOP primary debates, but he sometimes struggled when he felt he was being targeted unfairly. 

Aides to the president are coaching Obama to avoid falling victim to flashes in which he can veer off message, such as the high-profile primary moment from 2008 when he told Hillary Clinton that “you’re likable enough.” The assertion came off as condescending, and Obama can’t afford a similar mistake on Wednesday. 

Obama rarely shows public irritation, though there have been on-camera flashes of presidential prickliness — such as when he felt a local television reporter from Dallas wasn’t letting him finish answering a question — “Let me finish the answers the next time we do an interview, all right?” Obama said in the 2011 interview.


Such displays haven’t been seen from Obama on a debate stage, but Romney will hope to change that on Wednesday night. 

Romney will “try to get under the president’s skin to see if he can provoke an outburst,” said former President Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart. “I think if the story out of the debate is that the president loses his cool, it’s hard to see that being a good storyline.”

Ken Lundberg, a Republican strategist, credited Obama with having "great podium presence." But he said his weakness "is his demeanor when he's slightly agitated."

"If he senses he's not in control of the moment, the president has a tendency to revert to lecturing instead of debating," Lundberg said. "To an audience, that can come off as arrogant."

Like Obama, Romney is steady in temperament but occasionally shows a different side under stress, when he is also more likely to hurt himself with an off-script remark. 

After Rick Perry accused Romney of writing that the Massachusetts healthcare law was a model for the rest of the nation, the Republican fired back with his now-infamous offer of a $10,000 bet. In the hours after the debate, both Perry and Democrats seized on the moment to depict Romney as out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Romney aides on Monday said their man was ready for attacks from Obama referencing Romney’s comments at a closed-door fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as victims who are dependent on government. 

“We wouldn’t be surprised, obviously, if that came up in the debate, and the governor’s prepared, obviously, to respond about it,” said Romney adviser Kevin Madden. 

“The fact is, as Gov. Romney has said repeatedly, he is running to help 100 percent of Americans, especially the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work, the one in six Americans living in poverty today, the 15 million more Americans who are on food stamps as a result of President Obama’s policies.”

Aides to Obama suggest the president has a general disdain for Romney — he is said to particularly object to Republican attacks on his Medicare and welfare positions. 

Such disdain can be a killer for a candidate. Vice President Gore’s 2000 debate performance, in which he could be heard loudly sighing through Republican George W. Bush’s answers, hurt his candidacy. 

“The idea here is that he doesn’t want to make any news,” one top Democratic strategist said of Obama. “He will look to keep his character traits intact, exhibiting the same calm demeanor that he’s shown in the past few months. That’s a strategy that’s obviously been winning with the American people, and I think you’re going to see him stick with it.”

Romney must avoid undermining his efforts with off-the-cuff responses that emphasize his wealth — or betray his annoyance with a line of attack. 

He told reporters on Friday that he was “looking forward” to the debates, but that he recognized his job was to emphasize substance — and avoid “theatrics.”

“You know, I know that in debates there’s always interest in the theatrics, if you will, and the one-liners, the jokes, and who wore what color tie and so forth … And I think that despite all of the interest in those types of matters that the American people will listen carefully to the conversation that’s held over three debates and the fourth, with the vice presidential debate, and they’ll decide who can help their family,” Romney said.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who served as an aide to both 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and Gore, said Obama needs to continue to be an “appropriate aggressor.”

“He almost needs to channel his inner Muhammad Ali by being the ultimate counterpuncher,” he said. “But I think you’ll see him take a similar tone to the one he exhibited at the convention, a modulated aggressiveness.”