GOP, Dem insiders expect better second debate performance from Obama

There is bipartisan agreement on at least one thing as the second presidential debate looms: President Obama will turn in a better performance on this occasion than he did last time around.

Obama’s weak and disengaged display at the first debate, on Oct. 3, allowed Republican challenger Mitt Romney to reshape a race that had seemed to be slipping from his grasp.

Romney has risen rapidly in the polls since then. He now holds a lead in many nationwide surveys, while Obama clings to a shrinking advantage in several battleground states.

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But Washington insiders of all ideological stripes concur that Obama is too competitive a man and too gifted a politician to slip up so dramatically for a second time, when the candidates go under the spotlight at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Tuesday.

Underlining the stakes involved, Obama has been in near-seclusion in Williamsburg, Va., since Saturday afternoon. He will not leave until the day of the debate. 

Obama took a break to deliver pizza to campaign volunteers on Sunday, and told reporters his preparations were “going great.” Even such an innocuous comment marked a tonal contrast from the lead-up to Denver. 


Making a similar visit back then, Obama had only semi-jokingly complained that prep was “a drag. They’re making me do my homework.”

The president is accompanied in Williamsburg by the same team that readied him for the first encounter, including senior adviser David Axelrod, former communications director Anita Dunn and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has been playing the role of Romney.

Obama has also studied video of the ignominious first debate.

“He knows he wants to have a stronger performance,” one aide told The Hill.

An Obama campaign spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said that the president was “fired up, energized and excited.”

A Romney aide offered a more sardonic commentary on Obama’s likely performance, though.

“He’ll probably have a cup of coffee this time,” the source said, going on to poke fun at the explanation for the president’s desultory showing offered by former Vice President Al Gore: that he might have been affected by Denver’s high altitude.

“The altitude won’t be as bad” on Tuesday, the Team Romney member said. “The elevation is less than 70 feet above sea level, so the president won’t have that as an excuse.”

But some Republicans fear that Obama’s first performance might actually help him this week, at least so far as expectations are concerned.

“The bar for Obama is low,” said Texas-based GOP consultant Mark McKinnon. “All he has to do is show up awake this time and it will be scored a victory compared to last time.”

Democrats, meanwhile, take heart from the fact that Obama has long displayed a capacity to perform at his best when the pressure is at its most intense.

This pattern has been noticeable in both campaigns and governing, they say.

In 2008, when the incendiary sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright threatened to engulf his candidacy, Obama responded with a speech on race that was among his finest moments.

In the White House, he piloted his healthcare law through Congress after some of his advisers had given up hope of widespread reform and urged him to settle for more modest goals.

“He is a fourth-quarter player; he’s really good when the pressure is on,” said Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, who has worked on numerous presidential campaigns.

“I anticipate Obama being as good as he has ever been,” Republican strategist Trey Hardin agreed. “I anticipate him bringing his A+ game. I would expect [to see] an individual who is a better communicator, who can be likable — and who is going to prepare in every waking moment between now and then.”

Observers on both sides of the partisan divide are still coming to terms with the turbulence of the past few weeks.

First, a covertly filmed video emerged of Romney’s “47 percent" remarks at a private fundraiser in May; then Obama crashed and burned at the debate; and, most recently, Vice President Biden soothed frazzled Democratic nerves with his combative performance in his debate against Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), last week.

There was no clear victor in the Biden-Ryan tussle, but Democratic strategists like Doug Thornell argued that the vice president’s vigor in defense of the administration was important in itself.

“He calmed some of these Democrats who were thinking of jumping off the bridge and now they are going to step back from the ledge,” Thornell argued. “They saw a guy there fighting his butt off. That meant a lot to the people who are part of the Obama campaign, from Chicago [headquarters] to the people on the ground in states like Iowa. Emotionally, psychologically, that is a big lift.”

Even if Biden restored liberal spirits, however, his gains could all be undone if Obama does not to come to the stage in Hempstead in finer fettle than he did in Denver.

Obama needs “to drop the cool, detached, professorial demeanor and go right at Romney on all the issues, including his comments on the 47 percent and the $5 trillion tax cuts,” said Jim Manley, the former head of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) communications operation, who now works for lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie.

“He’s got to be willing to draw the contrasts and be aggressive, and also be presidential,” Shrum concurred. “The ideal is being authoritative and engaged.”

Tuesday’s debate is the only one that will be in a town-hall format, with the questions being posed by voters in attendance and the moderator — CNN’s Candy Crowley — confining herself mostly to the role of a facilitator.

The format brings its own challenges and opportunities for both Romney and Obama.

Republican strategist Ken Lundberg fretted that the setting could, from his side’s perspective, be a problem. Obama “thrives in that environment and Romney needs to realize that,” Lundberg said.

On the brighter side, from the GOP’s perspective, “we have seen that there are two Obamas: one in front of the teleprompter and one not in front of the teleprompter,” Hardin said. “At a town-hall debate, you don’t even have notes, which you do at a podium. I think Romney is going to be prepared to throw so much at Obama.”

Republicans believe that another victory for Romney could see a decisive erosion of Obama’s support.

For Democrats, meanwhile, a good performance from the president would not just right the ship; it would also be a welcome balm after the debacle in Denver.

“The president is a big-game player,” Doug Thornell said. “I fully expect him to do well — and erase what happened.”