It was billed as the “Fight of the Century” in 1971 when a star-studded crowd packed New York City’s Madison Square Garden to see the heavyweight championship fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. “Smokin’ Joe,” the underdog defeated the sentimental favorite Ali in a brutal bout that saw both men endure severe punishment. As historic a victory as Frazier scored in the 1971 fight; he lost the following two bouts against Ali and forever remained in the Louisville slugger’s shadow. This piece of pugilistic history should bring some comfort to President Obama as he prepares to take the stage tonight at Hofstra University (NorthStarNews.com will be on site covering the debate) for tonight’s second presidential debate. The President took a standing 8-count in his first encounter with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but tonight is Obama’s chance for a “Thrilla in Manila” moment.
While critics have panned the President’s performance in Denver during the first debate, and Mitt Romney’s corpse of a campaign was somewhat resuscitated, tales of Mr. Obama’s electoral death has been greatly exaggerated. There is no denying that Republicans were energized after the first presidential debate and the polls have tightened, with some even giving Romney a lead within the statistical margin of error. Still, despite Democrats tendency to be overly dramatic, it was always apparent that this would be an election won on the margins and the President still has some clear advantages entering tonight’s debate. First, he is the incumbent and there is always an advantage, unless you are Lyndon Johnson, in running from the Oval Office. The President also enjoys a significant advantage among African-American, Latino and women voters, and still enjoys strong support among young voters and senior citizens. President Obama is also playing well in Ohio and Michigan, though polls show some tightening, and he is battling it out in Florida. For Mitt Romney to win he will have to carry two or three of the key swing states – Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, Florida and Virginia. So, the electoral math still sways in the President’s favor but he can ill afford to have another zombie like debate performance.
Tonight the President will have to be quick in responding to inconsistencies in Mitt Romney’s campaign narrative, deconstruct his opponent’s claim of being a champion of job creation, and paint a clear picture of his differences with Romney on supporting the middle class. President Obama also has to avoid coming off apologetic for the record of his administration, and take credit for staving off a full-blown depression. Mitt Romney will undoubtedly try to exploit the tragedy in Libya at the U.S. embassy that claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. On this point the President is going to have to be forceful in his response and point out the inconsistencies in the rhetoric of the Republican ticket and the behavior of Republicans on Capitol Hill on defense and security expenditures. Romney will also try to tout again the supposed differences between his approach to health care and so-called “Obamacare,” and the President will need to respond factually to detail his opponent’s mistruths.
During the Denver debate the President lost points, and likely the debate, on style, and not necessarily substance. For the viewing public, style and appearance matters a lot, despite their lack of correlation to governing ability. In the first debate the President seemed disinterested and preoccupied; frequently glancing downward and writing on a pad on his lectern. Mitt Romney appeared buoyant and engaged, giving viewers a surprisingly upbeat performance. The Republican did have the advantage of having participated most recently in debates during the GOP primaries while President Obama had not participated in a campaign debate in four years. It showed as the President was rusty, slow to respond and generally lethargic though former Vice President Al Gore’s suggestion that President Obama was affected by altitude and jet lag is hardly believable.
The stakes are high for both candidates. The President has to regain his edge and reassure independent voters that their fortunes are best tied to his wagon. He also has to assure his base that he is indeed up to the fight that is going to ensue in the final weeks of the campaign. President Obama has to be more aggressive without being obnoxious and avoid opening himself up to criticism of being elitist. For Mitt Romney there is just as great a risk of coming into tonight’s debate overconfident. His performance in Denver has to be measured against a lackluster effort by the President, and with the understanding that the incumbent will likely come out swinging. Romney also took liberties in describing his positions and repeatedly contradicted earlier statements and campaign positions. The President will no doubt go after those inconsistencies and how Romney covers his tracks will play a major role in shaping voters’ opinions about the outcome of tonight’s debate.
Both men are facing a different format tonight. The debate tonight is a town hall, with voters being given an opportunity to question the candidates. It should give the President an advantage as Romney has difficulty connecting to people and consistently lags in the likeability column. If President Obama avoids lengthy explanations and uses his humor, when appropriate, to respond to questions, he should do very well tonight. The real work will begin immediately after the debate as each campaign “spins” the performance of their candidate to try to influence voters’ reaction and the post-debate polls.