Dan Amira makes a useful observation on why Romney is losing the debate expectations game in an important way:
So why does our headline also say Romney is losing the expectations game? Because there are actually two of them going on at once. The first concerns how well Romney will perform versus how well he is expected to perform. The second is how well he performs versus how well he needs to perform in the context of the race’s overall dynamics. And on that measure, the pressure on Romney is only growing.
This touches on something I mentioned a little while ago. As the Republican front-runner, Romney was free to play it safe and leave his rivals to fight among themselves for the title of anti-Romney challenger, and because his rival were competing for that role they largely left him to coast through most of the debates. As the trailing challenger, Romney will be compelled to be more aggressive in order to make up the distance between himself and Obama. That puts him in the position he was in during the primary debates in 2007 and 2008, when he was playing the part of the critic of the other candidates’ credentials. One of the many reasons his rivals came to loathe him so much during that cycle, and one of the reasons many voter were repelled by him, was this combination of aggressive tactics and phony posturing.
The trouble for Romney, as for any trailing candidate, is that he will have to put pressure on his opponent and force Obama into making errors, but in doing so the already widely-disliked Romney runs the risk of irritating and alienating even more people. Because his unfavorability in important states is near or at 50%, he has no room for any more unforced errors, but given Romney’s recent history it is more than likely that Romney will make just such an error at some point during the three debates. His 47% comments have put him on the defensive, which makes it more difficult for him to go on the attack without appearing desperate. At the same time, because of his exceptionally high unfavorability Romney will also need to be repairing his public image. He will be attempting to do this while he is trying to sow doubts in the audience’s mind about Obama, and that would be a complicated feat even for a very capable politician. Based on the last few months, we can conclude that Romney is not that.