Obama's do-or-die debate

Barack Obama makes phone calls with volunteers in Williamsburg, Virginia 14 October 2012 President Obama will be hoping to connect with voters in the next debate

The clash between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in a town hall-style meeting in Long Island could decide the outcome of the election.

Even as I write this, it sounds over-dramatic, putting far too much weight on one event.

But consider this: Mr Obama's failure and Mr Romney's success in the last debate coincided with a switch in the opinion polls. They didn't just narrow. Many showed, for the first time in the campaign, Mr Romney in the lead.

It was as true for the vital swing states as it was for the less meaningful national polls. Of course, this New York debate may change nothing, but no-one now doubts debates can matter. Another misjudged performance by Mr Obama could indeed come close to sealing his fate.

Neither hot nor cold

Team Obama have locked him away for four days in preparation. Few doubt his mastery of the facts, so this doesn't mean prepping him on Afghan geography or drilling into the detail of marginal tax rates.

It will be about style and image. Presumably they will be asking him and each other that most puzzling of questions - what went wrong last time?

Some commentators muse that he might have been distracted because he had just been handed some horrible top secret news.

Perhaps the Black Chamber had just revealed the Eater of Souls was returning to life through a portal near to the Denver debate site. Oh, wait that's a novel by Charles Stross.

Some think that it shows he's lost his will to win. Certainly, Mr Obama often seems to find the duty burdensome rather than a joy. But perhaps it was simply that he wanted to appear presidential and above petty argument, but missed the mark by enough to seem disengaged and aloof.

It would be a stunning surprise if he made the same mistake again. But his caution had a point. Some of the commentary on the vice-presidential debate judged that Joe Biden was too forceful, too rude, too scornful. Mr Obama has to make sure that his rhetorical porridge is neither too hot or too cold.

Mr Romney's hard work paid off last time, and a second victory would be a huge prize for him. He needs to be ready for this new Barack Obama and to be prepared to answer the questions he wasn't asked last time.

I'd expect what happened in Benghazi will be a central question he will want to raise - but he has to be clearer on what lessons he draws from the tragic lack of security and the Obama administration changing its story on the motivation behind the attack.

He has to have a clearer line on what he would do in Afghanistan and Syria - Paul Ryan made good debating points attacking the Obama administration on these points, but they didn't seem to rest on any well thought-out alternative position.

Permission to change?

But I expect both teams will want to look at the underlying dynamics that led to the shift in the opinion polls. On the surface it is just odd that a single debate would have produced such a big shift.

ABC News has a good analysis of some factors at work, but I've heard an intriguing explanation from Republican strategists. They argue that people who voted for Mr Obama last time in a spirit of hope are looking for permission not to do so again.

His lack of engagement, lack of answers, and lack of enthusiasm in the debate was so different from the mood he inspired in 2008, that it allows them to justify a switch without suggesting they made a mistake.

At the same time Mr Romney emerged as a different figure than the one they had heard or read about. This isn't because of some media bias; he is often wooden and stiff in front of an audience, his campaign has been disorganised and clumsy.

Add to that the Democrats' desire to paint him as scarily ultra-conservative. In the debate he came over as polished, more than competent and not at all frightening.

For both men and for the country, this next debate could hardly be more important.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    Midwestern sue
    I went over the top in an effort to get through to you people. Human nature is unchanged from the caves [see the ME today]. Push leads to shove as it always has. If you push your religion on others they will react as they always have. See Reformation wars. Why will you people never learn from history?

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    331 ‘Attempting to pick through the gibberish’

    Bear in mind you're responding to someone who said Obama is the Antichrist as foretold by prophecy. And supports Mittens because she wants universal healthcare and no tax cuts for the rich

    Compared to that, what is thinking Braveheart is a documentary?

    Or that mental illness is irrelevant to the judicial process?

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    342. AndreaNY

    I disagree with most of your statement (political opposites and all) but you have to wonder about the numbers tonight.
    How many people will be watching? surely more than the last debate.
    Seems most people on here will be tuned in.
    Forget SuperBowl This is hyperbole type numbers
    You almost have to wonder if its all just a show

  • Comment number 343.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    338. LucyJ

    Obama has played America for a sucker

    Obama has disappointed a lot of people. Listening to his speech, in which he mentioned slowing the rise of the oceans, as I just did, one is reminded of all the promise he held out.

    Boy, is he a different man today. That speech presents such a stark contrast with his debate performance.

    Romney's got the fire now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    It did seem as though Obama was distracted by something in the last debate, and it is possible that he heard some terrible news that he had to hold secret. I could have been lack of sleep, anxiety, or just fatigue.. Romney certainly took a shot at each and every weak spot he could find. And did a good job making the American people aware that Obama is not only human, but does have his bad moments

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    338. LucyJ

    A sucker born every minute
    but swallowers are harder to find.

    Clearly that will no longer be true if Mitt wins

  • Comment number 339.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    Sanchez: Romney is playing you for a sucker

    Obama has played America for a sucker

    His first Presidential speech wasn't even to us, it was to Egypt-
    Look where Egypt is today
    Thanks to Obama, Muslim Brotherhood has taken over

    Al Qaeda terrorists in Libya murdered our Ambassador+other Americans

    Obama is an excellent President for foreigners
    just a bad one for Americans

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.


    You might 'discard' saved egg/sperm as 'abomination': others not

    Yes abortion is abortion, but many possible 'reasons'

    Abortion is of potential child, but many rational distinctions

    Maternal mortality & morbidity real-world hazards: not to dismiss 'risks from abortion', but 'no comparison'

    Pregnancy may come 'blind'; but for the aware it takes courage & judgement

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    328 ‘That's why he's Flip Flop man.’

    Mittens reminds me of a former Irish govt, who got into power and completely reversed their policies.

    Someone observed – ‘To say they performed a u-turn would be a gross under-estimation of their aeronautical abilities.’

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    333. LucyJ
    16TH OCTOBER 2012 - 23:57
    Believing in Obama is believing in lies
    and Believing Romney ?

  • Comment number 334.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    McJ: I will fight to the death

    Midwest Sue must have really hit a nerve there

    Truth is too many liberal Dems are unwilling to admit the truth

    Nothing is more ruthless than hearing Obama say he is going to balance America's budget by expiring Bush Jr tax cuts
    b/c thats what he said the last time+
    it turned out to be nothing but a big fat lie

    Believing in Obama is believing in lies

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    307.Billythefirst & other posts
    eg "If the rich paid their taxes the safety net would be there"

    Reading your posts reminds me of Plato's "Gorgias", in which Socrates tells us that political rhetoric is to the mind as candy is to the body - superficially satisfiying but without substance. And that it works!

    It amazes me that an educated person can swallow Obama's rhetoric. Plato was right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.



    Don't you claim Scotland?

    But will they claim you in the upcoming vote?

    If its anything like Braveheart likely No


    Attempting to pick through the gibberish, No I dont claim Scotland. That would be stooooopid. No they wont claim me. The Scots will have a free vote on the Union. Fair play

    Braveheart? Hilarious! O_O

    Scotland IS part of Britain. Get the atlas out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    175, 182:chronophobe:Without a right to life all other freedoms are meaningless. RvW allows abortion for any reason for all 9 months of pregnancy.

    183:All for All:Sperm & eggs aren't people. Studies on Chile have found abortion is irrelevant with respect to maternal health. Countries with good health systems tend to allow abortion; abortion's not the variable that leads to better maternal health.

  • Comment number 329.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    Romney has demonstrated nothing.
    He's just said a lot of stuff, but,crucially,not about his tax returns, or the sums supporting his increased military expenditure, tax cuts and $500m pa debt reduction "plan".
    He has form for saying stuff and then saying completely different stuff from the stuff he originally said....that's his MO.
    That's why he's Flip Flop man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.


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