GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney could get a much-needed campaign reboot tonight by showing a little kick during the first presidential debate, veteran S.C. political experts said.
With less than five weeks before Election Day, Romney is trailing President Barack Obama by anywhere from 1 to 6 percentage points in recent polls and several of the pivotal battleground states that will decide the Electoral College vote.
Democrat Obama has less to lose in the debates, the analysts said. But Romney is having to play catch-up after a series of gaffes — the most recent a video that suggested he does not care for the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income taxes.
Romney showing a little fire, while standing a few feet from the commander-in-chief on the debate’s Denver stage, and connecting with voters could help shrink or close the gap in the polls, analysts said.
“If voters think they’re both nice guys when it’s over, that’s an advantage for Obama,” veteran S.C. Republican political consultant Richard Quinn of Columbia said.
The first of three presidential debates this month focuses on domestic issues — a top priority for South Carolinians struggling through the lingering sour economy.
The candidates should keep to their economic messages from the stump, said Charles Bierbauer, mass communications dean at the University of South Carolina. For Romney, that is: “I can do this better.” For Obama, it is: “We are part of the way along.”
One-line zingers also could come from their exchanges on the economy. Voters will watch closely to see how the candidates react, said Bierbauer, a former CNN correspondent.
“They’ll see which one has the capability to handle the unforeseen, the unplanned and the unpredictable,” he said. “This shows a certain element of character.”
While ahead in the polls, Obama needs to demonstrate a steady hand and continue to act presidential, S.C. Democratic pollster Carey Crantford said. “The tone and timbre needs to remain.”
But Bierbauer thinks the president needs to try to generate some excitement, especially among young voters, who might not head to the polls in the same large numbers as they did in 2008, helping elect Obama.
Obama also should avoid “long, professorial answers, and showing arrogance and irritation,” Republican Quinn said. “He is thin-skinned.”
Romney needs to connect with voters while not being seen as condescending, Bierbauer said. “He needs to show he’s not a sacrificial candidate and can stay on the field with incumbent.”
Romney will have to face his “47 percent” moment. The Republican challenger should discuss what he meant, that tax-cut discussions have no impact on those who don’t taxes, Quinn said.
“He has to have a convincing explanation,” Quinn said. “It’s not that he doesn’t care about those people. He cares about them deeply.”
The former Massachusetts governor might want to listen to a suggestion from one-time GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, Quinn said. Gingrich advised, “Mitt needs to do to Obama what he did to me.”
Gingrich won the January S.C. primary with a pair of aggressive debate performances. However, Romney struck back in Florida by going on the offensive against Gingrich — a performance he needs to repeat tonight, Quinn said.
But Romney needs to do so without looking mean, he said.
“He needs to be the adult and point to him and say, ‘Barack Obama is a likeable guy, He’s got a great smile. He’s a likeable celebrity who can stir people,’ ” Quinn said. “Then he needs to penetrate the veil of Obama’s likeability to show how poor the economy is performing.”
Some pre-debate talk has centered on the candidates going after the debate moderators and questioners, like Gingrich did in the S.C. primary. But if Romney were to disagree with tonight’s moderator, Jim Lehrer, “He would do it in a nice guy way, not the Newt way,” Quinn said.
The debates might not sway too many undecided voters, but they can “harden the leaners by either pushing them away or getting them closer,” Democrat Crantford said.
The candidates also could succeed by exciting their core base of voters, ensuring they go to the polls Nov. 6, analysts said.
In South Carolina, Crantford said about 12 percent of the state’s 2.6 million registered voters look beyond their party identification — as either Democrats or Republicans — when deciding who to vote for. But the presidential race will bring a surge of voters so that 12 percent can add up. Nearly 600,000 more S.C. voters came out for the 2008 presidential election than for the 2010 general election.
“This is a tight election,” Crantford said. “There will be a lot of discussion on how they are received at the debates.”