Candidates got game: a strategic guide to the first presidential debate
By ,
    Wednesday night, two of the biggest names in politics will suit up and face off in the first presidential debate of this election season. The stakes are high and the goal is clear: address domestic issues in a way that makes a difference come Nov. 6. North by Northwestern is calling out each candidate on his strengths and weaknesses and predicting this game the way we see it. We expect Barack to smirk at Mitt's remarks while sipping an ice-cold home brew and Mitt to vigorously defend himself without mussing a single perfectly gelled hair on his head. 

    Barack Obama

    By Samuel Niiro

    After a deadlocked contest through late summer, things are looking better for the incumbent. Whether it was a prolonged convention bump or Mitt Romney insulting half the nation, the race has changed. Obama is roughly three-and-a-half points ahead going into the debate, with momentum and enthusiasm that could carry him all the way. The question for him now is not how to win, but simply how to not lose.

    Strengths

    Relatability

    Following a series of well-publicized incidents that have made him appear callous, Romney is easily painted as out of touch, as a cursory Internet search shows. For Obama to cause another $10,000 bet moment would be ideal, but even mentioning tax returns would underscore the differences between Romney and the “average American."

    Healthcare

    Americans may not have warmed to Obamacare, but they do prefer Obama on healthcare overall. His plan for Medicare beats Romney’s by as much as 15 percent in polls in Florida and Ohio. Obama should make an effort to bring up Medicare, considering his opponent’s plans on it have earned boos from the AARP.

    Social Issues

    Things have changed since the last election. Obama is up by 20 percent among women, against 7 percent in 2008, and 54 percent of Americans now believe gay and lesbian relationships are morally acceptable. Obama should play up gay marriage and reproductive rights to expose weakness in Romney and rally support.

    Weaknesses

    Unemployment

    Obama has been polling well on the economy lately. Voters give him the edge on helping lower- and middle-income Americans by 36 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Despite this, unemployment remains a problem, and Obama should have an answer prepared. Whether that means implying his opponent won’t solve the problem or pointing out the net gain of jobs on his watch, Obama had better be ready.

    Aggression

    Whether he's “Competitor in Chief” or just someone with “a mean streak,” Obama has a weakness for mocking remarks. Another "likable enough" moment could seriously hurt his image with independents. The president will have to remain calm throughout and avoid reacting to provocation.

    The Deficit

    As their debt clock showed, the Republican Party believes the fight over spending is in their favor. Explaining why debt isn’t a crisis hasn’t resonated with voters, while mentioning the previous administration comes off as blame-shifting. Obama’s best answer is to point out Romney’s own plan won’t fix the deficit as advertised, and attempt to put his opponent back on his heels.

    Prediction

    It's been four years since Obama has been challenged in a debate.  In the first two rounds on the economy, expect to see him pausing to formulate responses and trying to dodge questions. By the time the debate moves into healthcare, however, he should have regained his stride. It won't be an overwhelming victory, but if he avoids making snide comments and appears knowledgeable on the deficit and unemployment, it won’t be a loss, either.

    Mitt Romney

    By Benjamin Kamisar

    With just 34 days between the first debate and the general election, it's crunch time for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Despite air tight poll numbers among national likely voters, President Barack Obama seems to have the electoral college momentum, and Romney must flip the momentum soon and fortify the narrative that he is the counter to Obama's failed policies. By hammering home these strengths and avoiding his weaknesses, here's how Romney can win Wednesday's debate.

    Strengths

    The economy, stupid

    For Romney to pull out the underdog victory, he needs to slam his economic message home: that Obama has failed to deliver on his promise of putting Americans back to work and spurring economic recovery. In 2008, Obama relied on overwhelming support from the African-American and youth communities, two groups facing unemployment rates significantly above the national average, at 16.5 percent and 30.2 percent respectively as of July. Romney will undoubtedly address unemployment overall, highlighting the administration's predictions that their stimulus would lower unemployment to well under 8 percent

    Another key weapon for Romney will be deficit reduction; with the deficit already a main image during the convention, Romney will aggressively attack Obama for the over $5 trillion added to the debt since he took office. This will unquestionably  shift the conversation towards culpability, with Romney attempting to hang the blame on Obama for not closing this gap, while the president will deflect most of the criticism towards Bush-era policies. Whoever makes the stronger case here will gain significant control in the debate.

    Tough at the pump

    One of the easiest targets for Romney should be gas prices, which have steadily increased since Obama's inauguration. While significant arguments can be made to deflect blame from the president, Americans have seen the tangible and drastic increases to gas prices. Romney will almost certainly combine his gas price attack with Obama's unwillingness to support the Keystone XL pipeline to demonstrate Obama's failed energy policies.

    Promote pro-life

    Despite his pro-choice views in his earlier career, Romney has made a steadfast pro-life commitment and just judging by the polling, the majority of Americans (and independents) agree with him. Gallup polling shows that 50 percent of American adults, including 47 percent of independent voters, label themselves as "pro-life". With the percentage of "pro-choice" Americans dropping, this is an issue that Romney can feel free to pound home. 

    Weaknesses

    Avoid health care like the plague

    There's no way around it: Health care will be the second most mentioned issue after the economy. But for the one-time champion of universal health care, the issue is exceedingly dangerous. For Wednesday, Romney must have a more defined answer to his mantra of "Repeal and Replace," one that sounds much less like the president's plan.

    Budget math doesn't add up

    The Romney-Ryan budget represents a deep commitment to limited government, a commitment that may be tough for voters to swallow. In order to keep Romney's promise to preserve funding for Medicare and Social Security and still lower federal spending to his targeted levels, in his budget "all other programs — including Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, education, environmental protection, transportation, and SSI — would have to be cut by an average of 40 percent in 2016 and 57 percent in 2022.” Cuts that deep, along with attacks on Romney's plan to extend the Bush tax cuts, could very well become a game changer.

    Pivot on gay marriage

    Unlike abortion, gay marriage is a social issue on which Romney constitutes the minority. In the highest figure in the history of Gallup's tracking polls on the issue, 53 percent of Americans believe that same-sex marriage "should be recognized by the law as valid." The inroads Romney hopes to make with independents could stall on this issue, as 59 percent believe it should be legal. This would be the perfect issue to pivot towards more of a states' rights approach, instead of doubling down and spending valuable time defending his stance.  

    Prediction

    Romney's no novice with debates, having experience in gubernatorial, senatorial and presidential primary debates, so look for him to come out swinging. His team will most likely keep him pivoting towards the central themes of the economy and limited government, but unless he brings more specifics to the table, he'll be hard-pressed to walk away with the win he desperately needs.

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