The Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, has likened tonight’s presidential debate to the second installment of the Ali-Frazier epic grudge matches. That seems apt. Whether or not debates actually impact the outcomes of elections — poli-sci types insist they rarely do — the hype surrounding Obama-Romney Round 2 certainly feels like a confrontation of world-historical importance.
So here are a handful of important things to watch for.
1.) Obama’s Record — So much of the commentary following the first debate in Denver centered on the president’s failure to block Mitt Romney as he sauntered into the political center. That was bad enough, if you’re an Obama supporter. What was worse was Obama’s strange passivity in defending his own record. To cite one example, he was asked by Romney why he spent so much “time and energy” on Obamacare. He could have responded thusly: “Look, Mitt, I know you’ve had your eye on this job for the last six or seven years. But you’re misguided about how it works. You can’t focus on just one thing. We took steps to put the economy on a path to recovery. But I was elected also to end the scandal of 50 million uninsured Americans. I did that. And I’m proud of it.” Obama said no such thing. He meandered into something about how Obamacare is part of an economic growth strategy! He will need to do markedly better tonight. Will he confidently defend healthcare? Declining unemployment figures? Decreasing annual deficits? The auto-industry bailout? Something?
2.) The Common Touch — When it comes to mingling with laid-back country folk, let’s face it, Mitt is a jackass. The NASCAR ponchos. The donuts. The 7-11 cookies. The WaWa hoagies. I could go on. Romney has improved his favorability numbers dramatically since the first debate, but tonight’s townhall format offers him a chance to make a human connection in front of a massive television audience. It could matter.
3.) Libya — I feel ashamed that I didn’t make this No. 1, but here it is: Benghazi. Yesterday, in Lima, Peru, of all places, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “I take responsibility” for the security lapse at the U.S. diplomatic mission that was attacked on Sept. 11. Yet as she deflected blame away from the White House, she also pushed it downhill — toward “security professionals.” Romney will surely make an issue of this. But how big of one? And how will it play in a room full of self-identified undecided voters who might be inclined to ask about underwear?
4.) Women — The big news in an otherwise quiet day yesterday was USA Today/Gallup data showing Romney closing the gender gap in swing states. The Obama campaign publicly pushed back against this data, so there’s no doubt they’re spooked by it. If a voter question doesn’t do the work for him, will Obama bring up abortion or contraception? Will Romney attempt to seal the deal with women by softening his abortion position as he did in a recent interview with the Des Moines Register?
5.) Taxes — I’ll end here where I began: with Romney’s pivot to the center. Of all the Romney parries that Obama seemed most unprepared for, it was the issue of tax reform. The president seemed to cling to the Tax Policy Center’s reckoning of Romney’s tax plan as if it were his woobie. That’s not going to fly tonight. Will he find a new, more effective way to stuff Romney back into the pack ’n’ play with Grover Norquist? And, on the same token, will Romney make Obama look like a guy who’s unusually obsessed with raising taxes? Like: is that you’re only idea, pal? That, and “green jobs”? Really?
Much has been said lately, too, of Obama’s lack of a “vision thing.” Why will the next four years be different from the last four? That’s important, to be sure. But you, TAC readers, know that’s all window-dressing.
Have fun watching tonight, and don’t drink too much.