James Fallows thinks we underestimate Mitt Romney's debating skills at our peril:
... debates are and have been his strength. He grew up enjoying "big, boisterous arguments about everything around the dinner table," according to his campaign strategist and main debate-prep specialist, Stuart Stevens. "He loves the dialectic of arguing the different sides, and he's most uncomfortable when no one is disagreeing with him." He will enter this fall's encounters with very recent, successful experience in a very wide range of formats and challenges.I agree that Romney, in a debate, can seem confident, well informed, and on point. He could do quite well in the debates.
In none of the Republican-primary debates was Romney judged the big loser; in many he was the clear winner, and as the campaign wore on, the dominant image from the debates was of a confident Romney, standing with a slight smile on his face and his hands resting easily in his pockets, looking on with calm amusement as the lesser figures squabbled among themselves and sometimes lashed out at him.
But what Fallows describes as "the dominant image" of Romney as a debater -- Romney "looking on with calm amusement" at "the lesser figures" -- worked in the primary season because Romney was debating a bunch of buffoons. Even the GOP base eventually concluded that about the rest of the field (not that the base likes Romney much). But is it really going to benefit Romney to stare condescendingly at Barack Obama the way he does at about 0:53 of the video that accompanies the Fallows piece?
Fallows, in the video, praises Romney for how he debated Ted Kennedy -- I don't know why, given that the Romney-Kennedy race ended in a landslide win for Kennedy, in what had been a tight race. Starting at 1:38 Fallows actually describes as a masterstroke the way Romney went after Ted Kennedy on gun control No, seriously -- Fallows thinks Romney showed incredible skill in attacking a guy whose two brothers were shot for invoking that personal experience. ("We've heard that before. That's the last resort each time," Romney says, voice dripping contempt.) This is why he might beat Obama? Seriously?
Romney prevailed in Republican debates because his opponents were unlikable and because the Republican voters he was trying to reach didn't want likable -- being nasty and arrogant was a plus. But the public likes Obama. The public (or at least the non-GOP public) doesn't want to see Obama condescended to, or treated with contempt.
Romney ought to be smart enough to adjust his style to reflect how the public feels about his general election opponent. But he's shown no sense of that in the campaign so far, so I question whether he can adjust in the debates. I think he's going to be nasty and unpleasant and try to treat Obama as his inferior. If the electorate were all Republican, that would work. But it isn't.