Pete Spiliakos makes a characteristically smart observation on Romney’s debate record:

Romney is on his own – Romney’s debate record in the Republican primaries is a little less impressive than it seems (though still impressive.) The debates had a weird dynamic that favored Romney. Romney was the frontrunner and all the other candidates were trying to become the main Romney alternative. So almost every time a candidate emerged as a the Romney alternative, all of the other candidates would gang up on whoever had emerged as the main Romney alternative.

Romney also had the good fortune that the candidates that tried to attack him often flubbed their lines or refused to follow through on criticisms made outside the debate. The idea that Pawlenty sabotaged his entire campaign because he would not repeat his “Obamneycare” remark during one debate is overstated, but this was one instance when Romney was saved by the ineptitude of his opponents. Rick Perry’s attempts to mock Romney for the reversals and inconsistencies in his record failed so badly that they hastened the implosion of Perry’s candidacy. It was really only when Santorum had an incentive to criticize Romney’s record from the right in the later stages of the primaries that there was a primary opponent willing and able to attack Romney effectively, and by then Romney wasn’t going to be derailed. Had Romney’s more conservative challengers focused their energy on tearing Romney down rather than seeking to discredit one another, it is easy to see how Romney could have come out of these debates looking much worse as a debater than he did. Perversely, Romney’s challengers were all so convinced of his weakness as a candidate that they took it for granted that their real competition was to be found among the other conservatives. That ended up making Romney look better in the debates than he otherwise would have.

Even when his opponents were willing and able to land blows on Romney, he enjoyed the advantage of being the real front-runner throughout the nominating contest. Romney prevailed in his debates by playing not to lose, and he was in a position to do that because of his front-runner status. As the challenger in the general election, Romney faces one challenge in demonstrating that he’s qualified for the Presidency, and he won’t be able to do that simply by checking off the appropriate ideological boxes. As the candidate consistently behind in the race, he cannot afford to wait for his opponent to make a major mistake. The debates represent his best opportunities to change the story from one of a flailing, incompetent campaign that we’ve been seeing for the last few weeks, which will require him to go on the attack. As Romney has shown at different times this year, his attacks on Obama tend not to work very well because what he believes to be a clever rebuke to the incumbent is often enough just a self-discrediting blunder. Some of the statements that have been enormous gifts to the Obama campaign have come from Romney attack lines that the Republican nominee used when trying to exploit what he perceived as a huge opening. Romney’s tendency to overreach keeps coming back to haunt him, and he will have to avoid doing this if he doesn’t want to give Obama more easy targets.

A potential pitfall for Romney is that he consistently trails in the polls on both traits and issues. The recent Pew survey offered the most stark example of this, but it is a pattern that is repeated in all the national polls. According to Pew, he isn’t liked or trusted as much as Obama, and the only issue where he leads Obama is on handling the deficit, and even there his edge is very small. The point is that Romney might deliver a given attack line against Obama very effectively on Medicare or the economy, for example, but unless he can show how he would be better able to handle the issue he is unlikely to make inroads with many persuadable voters.

As these figures suggest, the pressure will be on for Romney to prevail in the first debate, which is dedicated entirely to domestic issues. Romney is most competitive on economic and fiscal issues, and they are the ones that are also of far greater importance to almost all voters. (Note that Romney has traditional Republican weaknesses on health care and Medicare, but continues to trail badly on foreign policy issues as well.) That is Romney’s best chance to make a favorable impression on the voters that have not yet committed to a candidate, and it is probably the one debate where he is least likely to make a fool of himself. The subsequent debates will be partly or entirely focused on foreign policy, at which point the hill becomes much steeper for Romney and the potential for major mistakes increases dramatically.