By Justin Sink and Ian Swanson - 10/03/12 09:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney went on offense Tuesday ahead of his crucial first debate against President Obama, adding fresh details to his policies while capitalizing on a blunder by Vice President Biden.
The GOP nominee proposed limiting individual tax deductions to $17,000, a move that could help rebuff arguments from the Obama campaign that his fiscal policies are both vague and aimed at helping the rich.
Separately, Romney’s campaign seized on a gaffe by Biden Tuesday that forced Team Obama to engage in damage control on the debate’s eve.
At a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C., Biden — seeking to attack Republicans for raising taxes — said the middle class already had been “buried” over the past four years.
Romney’s campaign and Republicans gleefully agreed, saying Obama’s policies had been devastating to the middle class. Biden’s office explained the vice president meant President Bush’s policies had caused the recession four years ago, and Biden modified the remarks at a later campaign event to make the distinction clear.
Combined, Biden’s gaffe and Romney’s tax proposal added up to a good day for the Republican, who has had precious few of those over the past few weeks.
With just five weeks to go before Election Day, Romney is trailing in most polls, and the debate — which is expected to draw at least 50 million television viewers — could be his last best chance to reverse the narrative of the campaign.
If Romney turns in a dismal performance Wednesday, he could see donors and supporters deflecting aid to congressional candidates more likely to prevail in November. A report by the Fox Business Network suggested this might already be taking place.
Top Romney surrogate and former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu said Biden’s gaffe was unlikely to change votes, but would give Romney a shot in the arm.
“I think it sets the stage for the debate that will take place tomorrow,” Sununu said on a conference call with reporters. It tells voters “this is what you really ought to be looking for” during the contest, he said.
Both Romney’s tax message and Biden’s gaffe fit into the context of Wednesday’s debate, which is to focus on the central issue in the election: the economy.
The format will include longer 15-minute segments designed to give the candidates a chance to explain their positions thoroughly — and for each to engage with his opponent.
According to debate host Jim Lehrer, three of the segments will focus on the economy, while the other 45 minutes will be devoted to “healthcare, the role of government, and governing.”
While neither campaign has said much in recent days — Obama has been holed up at a resort in Las Vegas, while Romney has been conferring with aides in Denver — both say they hope for a serious and substantive discussion.
“I think you know, having covered him, and all of us having observed him — the president’s inclination and preference when policy is being debated is to debate it substantively and discuss it substantively, and to explain and put forward his ideas for why he thinks — or what he thinks is the best way to move this country forward, both domestically and internationally,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney earlier this week. “And that preference and inclination, given modern debate format, might be a liability, but it is the approach he prefers to take.”
That sentiment was echoed by Romney himself, who said Monday night at a campaign rally in Denver that it’s “not so much winning and losing or even the people themselves, the president and myself — it’s about something bigger than that.”
“I look forward to these debates,” he continued. “I’m delighted that we’re going to have three debates. It’ll be conversation with the American people that will span almost an entire month. We’ll get to describe our respective views, and I believe the people of Colorado will choose a better way forward for our country.”
Aides to the Romney campaign say they have prepared their candidate, in tough sparring sessions with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), to answer challenges on his “47 percent” remark and the possibility Obama will challenge his tax and immigration plans. And, they say, Romney will have his “lucky charm” — his wife, Ann — in attendance.
In the few interviews and public statements Romney has granted since the weekend, he has broken new ground on each issue — floating the idea of a standard $17,000 deduction for all Americans and saying he wouldn’t invalidate visas given as part of the president’s deferred deportation program — each a subtle hint that he might be refining his talking points before the debate.
Team Obama has signaled that the president intends to push Romney to provide more details. While Romney has offered more specifics this week, he has tended to be vague on the campaign trail, possibly for fear of offending either his conservative base or important swing voters.
“We think the American people are looking for specifics, and Mitt Romney and his team, including his running mate, and many of his surrogates have had ample opportunity to do that,” Obama campaign traveling press secretary Jen Psaki said. “This week hasn’t been the greatest week for that, on that front.”
A Romney aide said Tuesday that the $17,000 cap would be in addition to a personal exemption that could be dialed up or down depending on the numbers in order to prevent an effective tax increase on middle-class families, and a separate provision to exempt healthcare costs. The combination of the three, the campaign argued, would be one possible way to accomplish Romney’s stated tax goal, prevent effective tax rates from rising on middle-class and poor families and keep the plan deficit-neutral.