Inside the campaign: How Mitt Romney preps
By: Mike Allen
October 15, 2012 07:49 AM EDT
In the days leading up to Mitt Romney’s Denver debate triumph, the team helping him prepare reached a breakthrough with one critical insight: The candidate did best when he felt free to talk like a businessman, pitching voters as though he were pitching investors.
Stop trying to edit your answers for political effect—a habit Romney had internalized, of necessity, in the long fight for the GOP nomination—his advisers urged him. Trust language that comes naturally to you.
The result was a debate performance in Denver that relied heavily on litanies of numbered points—“My plan has five basic parts,” he said in his first answer to moderator Jim Lehrer—and drew a sharp contrast with an unusually listless appearance with President Barack Obama.
Over this past weekend, Romney advisers and the candidate himself were grappling with a new challenge. It was how to repeat the success of Denver—when Romney at last managed to find something like his authentic voice—on Tuesday in a debate with a town-hall format that will push Romney much further out of his newfound comfort zone.
Practice sessions for the second round, according to Republicans familiar with the preparations, have been focused almost entirely on the stagecraft and body language of engaging with the questioners. Romney has been warned not to physically back away from a questioner, but to lean in as if having a one-on-one conversation that just happens to have 50 million or so eavesdroppers.
Obama aides, for their part, have signaled that he plans to be much more aggressive this time, including raising questions about Romney’s work at Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he helped found. In fact, Obama is so primed for a comeback that the number one piece of advice he is getting, according to a Democrat familiar with the president’s debate preparation, is “not to overreact, not to overcompensate.”
“You’ve got to take on this guy and challenge him, but you can’t seem like a bully,” the Democrat said.
If Obama needs to recover from a flat performance in Denver, it is still Romney—as the candidate facing a steeper Electoral College path to victory—who has the most pressure on him, particularly as his strong first debate has heightened expectations for an even stronger second.
It is a sign of Romney’s idiosyncrasies as a politician that the most commonplace and even obvious advice—just be yourself—summoned forth in Denver a recital of crisp, multi-pronged arguments: four numbered reasons he was against “Obamacare”; three numbered points about his tax plan, how he would cut the deficit and how he would rein in spending; and two numbered about his Medicare plan, and about how he would replace the health-care law.
A blizzard of data isn’t the classic strategy for a politician trying to highlight his human side. But Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)—who started out as the sparring partner, playing Obama in debate practice, but gradually took on a broader role as debate strategist—observed that it was precisely when Romney channeled the language and cadences of his business career that he seemed most at ease, and most credible.
Romney advisers familiar with debate preparations and Portman’s role said an ideological repositioning, from severe conservative to reassuring moderate, was not part of the strategy, but that when Romney speaks from the heart he naturally sounds more pragmatic and less doctrinaire.
Aides are sufficiently satisfied with the content of Romney’s answers – including his response on the “47 percent” video, which did not come up in the first debate – that practice sessions have been mostly on stylistic matters, rather than substantive ones.
No one familiar with Romney’s revival on the debate stage suggests that the Republican nominee, who often seems ill at ease when playing a regular-guy role, is ready to give Oprah a run for her money, or that he would be comfortable emulating the bit-lower-lip and misty-eyed empathy for which Bill Clinton was famous in town hall debates.
But Romney aides do believe he can use the techniques that worked at Denver to good effect at Hofstra University on Long Island. An audience of about 80 uncommitted voters who live in Nassau County, chosen by the Gallup polling organization, will pose a dozen or so questions to the candidates.
“Beyond humanizing him and making him seem more sincere and approachable,” said a Republican official involved in Romney’s debate prep, “he looks more relaxed and therefore is able to deliver the lines better because he’s saying it in his own way, rather than struggling to remember a canned line.”
It was the canned lines that Portman sought to purge with his advice to Romney.
“Portman pushed him to not try to trim his answers back to avoid alienating anyone,” a Romney campaign official said. “What Portman basically encouraged him is: ‘Rely on answers that make sense to you. If you go back to things you’re comfortable with, you’ll project confidence. Don’t slice and dice as if you’re some kind of marketing guy.’”
Aides say Portman gained huge credibility with Romney and his inner circle by throwing himself into the campaign despite being passed over for the slot of running mate. The debate strategy he helped shape — along with senior adviser Ed Gillespie, campaign manager Matt Rhoades and others — was geared to keeping Romney in his a comfort zone where he will come off as sunnier and more confident.
Of special interest is how this new light on Romney affects the way that women independents react to Romney. The nominee’s strategists believe Denver was the start of a reappraisal among this pivotal voting bloc, which had been cool to the GOP nominee.
“What women saw in Obama is kind of the interesting but arrogant guy that turns them off,” said a Republican familiar with Romney’s internal campaign polls.
“What they saw in Mitt was a reliable father,’” the Republican continued. “He showed women that he’s a listener. Obama in the first debate was the husband who says: ‘That’s your problem? Here’s the solution.’ Mitt was the husband who says: ‘Well, you, know I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve got some ideas. You wanna talk about them?’ Women want to know that you listen to them.”
If so, this revival occurred none too early, given the apparent lead Obama seemed to be opening up in nearly every swing state. Romney’s campaign had been taking on a death-march aroma similar to what trailed Bob Dole and his sad, underdog campaign against President Bill Clinton, in 1996.
Now, outside Republican groups spending heavily in the race say their polls have Romney in the game in every swing state. This past weekend, Romney score a series of encouraging headlines in swing-state newspapers, including “Romney on the rise in Ohio” in The Columbus Dispatch, “Poll: Romney swings into Florida lead” in The Miami Herald, “Debate shifts race hugely” in the Tampa Bay Times, and “Romney sways voters” as the lead story of The Sunday Denver Post.
Although women swing voters are seen as particularly wary of harsh right-wing rhetoric and positions, it was an attitudinal shift, not a programmatic one, that Romney advisers were seeking in Denver and will be seeking again on Long Island.
“The debate prep didn’t get into ‘go moderate,’ or don’t,” said a top Romney adviser. “What happened in the debate prep was Portman forcing the issue of having Romney always default to things that Romney does naturally. Romney loves a litany: ‘I’ve got five things. … I’ve got three.’ If you’ve ever sat in on an investor presentation, that’s what they’ve got: ‘Our fund has four basic premises. We have three sectors we’re focused on.’”
For weeks, when Portman was on a plane or on a long car ride, he whipped out his iPad and watched videos of Obama in interviews, and at Rose Garden ceremonies and press conferences; debating Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008; speaking at a campaign kickoff rally in Cleveland in May; and delivering his Teddy-Roosevelt-inspired populism speech in Kansas in December.
Portman and other advisers developed a playbook that included localized, personalized stories that would be harder to rebut that a string of statistic or assertions; language that Romney would find comfortable; a case that went beyond jobs and the economy, to call Obama’s leadership into question across the board; and the multi-part “litanies.”
In part, the numbers were the message: Portman remembered that in focus groups for his election to Senate in 2010, voters might not be able to recall the specifics of the nine-page “Portman Plan to Create Ohio Jobs,” but they would often say that they knew he had a plan.
Portman was well-positioned to give blunt advice to Romney because he had the stature and independence to say what he really thought. The Ohio Republican has had two Cabinet-level jobs, worked in two White Houses, and was in the House leadership.
“The unwritten story is the effect of Portman’s very subtle driving towards, ‘Mitt’s gotta do his default set of behaviors — that’s the way to be successful,’” said the top adviser. “He’s a guy with enough personal money and backbone that he was unafraid. … This the advantage of having someone in the debate prep who is a peer, doesn’t need a job from Romney, isn’t positioning himself for a job – he got passed over for the only job he wanted. Mitt looks at him as a soldier.”