This year’s presidential debates could have as decisive an effect on the election outcome as any since 1980, if not 1960. Mitt Romney brings formidable advantages to the contests—but he has one big weakness that President Obama can exploit.

Why This Year’s Debates Are Different From All Other Debates, And Why They Are the Same

Televised debates, of which there have been more this year than ever before, have already made a bigger difference in the 2012 presidential election so far than in any other: this is the first campaign in which an otherwise potentially dominant candidate, Rick Perry, was forced from the race purely on the basis of disastrous debate performances.

“In any normal year, Perry would have sewn this up by February,” a veteran Republican politician told me in May. Perry had money, swagger, more than a decade’s worth of governing experience in his big-state base, plus most of the proper policy positions for this year’s Republican electorate. What he did not have was the presence of mind to remember which three federal agencies he had promised to abolish, as revealed in his excruciating brain-freeze moment on live TV last November. Nor was he able to explain away in several debates his only unpopular-with-the-base position, a relatively soft line on illegal immigrants, as effectively as Mitt Romney has contained the damage from his support of “Obamneycare” in Massachusetts. (Romney’s explanation is that health care should be a state-by-state choice, not a federal matter. It’s not a great argument, but his only alternative would be an ostentatiously flip-flopping rejection of a policy he happily helped enact only a few years ago.) When I asked campaign veterans from both parties for names of other candidates who, like Perry, had been eliminated solely because of a few disastrous debates, no one could come up with a comparable case. The closest would be Fred Thompson, the actor and former senator who seemed barely awake during his first few appearances in the 2008 cycle. But he lacked the other ingredients of a plausible candidate—he was long out of office, had “gone Hollywood,” had no field organization or policy machinery in place.

This year’s primary cycle was aberrant in another way: it featured so many debates, promoted by so many networks, with a cast of so many flamboyant characters, in such a rapidly changing variety of promising and disappointing roles. “Normally, you have a competitive primary,” Steve Bogden told me. “This year, it was an ongoing audition for whoever was going to be the anti-Romney. Almost everybody had their surge, but there were no credible challengers. Cain? Ging­rich? Santorum? Romney didn’t have to ‘win’ this year. He just waited for everyone else to lose.” In this view, the only credible challengers were the ones who sat out the race—and naturally, according to Bogden, the candidate he worked for, Huntsman.

“Something went really wrong with these debates,” Stuart Stevens of the Romney campaign told me. “The way the candidates got used as promo tools for news networks and on-air talent, it was incredible.” With nine candidates in the field, all but Romney desperate for exposure, and with Romney concerned about being cast too early as all the others’ target in the front-runner role, none of them could easily ignore a summons to appear at a debate scheduled by Fox News, CNN, or other news organizations. (A debate in Orlando, last September, was convened by the odd troika of Fox News, Google, and the Florida Republican Party.) “We tried to have some input,” Stevens said. “ ‘Maybe let’s have one about economics? Or with some moderators who have a little more substance?’ It was: ‘Zero! Like it or not, show up, or we’ll have an empty chair.’ ”

The nadir, from his campaign’s point of view, was a back-to-back sequence in New Hampshire the weekend before its primary. On Saturday night, the candidates debated for an hour and a half at Saint Anselm College, in Manchester. Less than 12 hours later, they met again, in Concord, for a debate on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Ronald Reagan didn’t have to do 57 hours of debating,” Stevens said. To be precise, neither did Mitt Romney. The 2012 primary debates came to a little under 50 hours of airtime, but that was a dramatic difference from the six debates, totaling eight hours, that Ronald Reagan and his primary opponents underwent in 1980. “We are doing debate prep at 5:30 in the morning, and I am saying: ‘Something is wrong here. It completely paralyzes the campaign. Why are we shilling for their shows?’ ”

But what Romney, like any sane observer, viewed as a burden, other candidates—Ging­rich mainly, but also Santorum—­viewed as a godsend. Every hour of a debate was a chance to get their message out without paying for it. Ging­rich’s fund-raising soared with each new attack he made on Romney in a debate—and dried up when the debate schedule waned, at the end of January.

As his rivals were felled, or destroyed themselves, Romney kept moving ahead. His mistakes were few, and his focus was steady, on whichever of the sequential challengers was most threatening week by week. “Romney is a seriously under­rated debater,” Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, told The Atlantic’s Molly Ball in June. “The truth is, he under­stood what his job in all those debates was. When it was to go out and finish Rick Perry, he did it. When it was to hold the lead in New Hampshire, he did it.”

Marty Linsky, of Cambridge Leadership Associates and the Harvard Kennedy School, a veteran observer of Massachusetts politics, told me that this was consistent with a skill Romney had demonstrated in his political career there. Romney, he said, had a remarkable instinct for “saying whatever needs to be said at that moment and no more, and a real tactical skill in getting through the next doorway.”

Romney has also understood that debates, while supposedly about “policy,” never really turn on the superior logical case for this or that approach to the world’s problems. Having candidates answer policy questions is just a way to find out what we really want to know: how they look and present themselves, how they look side by side, how they think and speak on their feet, how we feel about them when they address us in their role as potential leaders.

These truths held through the Republican primaries this year. There were so many of them that all of the candidates had both up and down moments. Perry’s “downs” were most obvious, but by the end of the sequence even he had improved. (In his last appearance before he dropped out, in South Carolina in mid-January, his fellow candidates seemed visibly to be rooting for him to get through his answers safely. Each time he did, he gave a little sigh of relief and was greeted with a cross-panel smile.) Romney’s ups consisted mainly of leaving each debate with the same front-runner status he’d had going in, and allowing the other candidates to over­extend and embarrass themselves.

His five or six notable downs, roughly one for every 10 hours of live airtime, mainly involved his difficulty with unscripted moments and the tendency of his spontaneous comments to ring wrong. “He gets prickled when he sees debates moving away from what he is prepared for,” Steve Bogden said. “He feels a need to be in character; and without planning, he doesn’t know what his character would say.” A man who worked closely with Romney in his years as governor told me, “He has strong core family values, and religious values. But he doesn’t really have core policy values. If you’re busy trying to remember what to say, it is harder to come across convincingly.”

The two worst moments both involved Rick Perry, at events where Romney and Perry were positioned beside each other on the stage. In October, at a debate at Sheldon Adelson’s Sands Convention Center, in Las Vegas, Perry accused Romney of hypocrisy for taking a tough line on immigration while hiring illegal-immigrant lawn workers at his own house. Romney gave a stagy “The things people say!” laugh, and began his answer—and Perry cut in and talked right back. As he did when interrupted in other debates, Romney seemed miffed by this violation of the rules. “Rick, I’m speaking!” he said, in a tone suggesting that Perry must have forgotten whose turn it was. When Perry kept going, Romney leaned over and placed his hand on Perry’s shoulder, in a “Calm down, little man” gesture, repeating “I’m speaking! I’m speaking!” as he did so. For a moment Perry looked as if he was going to rear back and slug him.

From people who had worked with several of the candidates at that debate, I heard that the circumstances were unusually frazzling, especially for Romney. He had fund-raisers and other events that left no time for his normal pre-debate chilling-out and prep time. The debate was in the afternoon, rather than in the normal nighttime slot. And the gladiatorial approach CNN took in staging the event caught some of the candidates by surprise. CNN ran a two-minute intro video with the faux gravitas of an action-movie trailer—“With nothing less than America’s future at stake …”—read in a voice-of-doom tone. Then Anderson Cooper called the candidates forward from backstage as if they were pro wrestlers.

All of this might have contributed to Romney’s mis­calculation under stress. But he is running for a high-stress job. Moreover, we often remember what politicians reveal in such unscriptable moments—for instance, the first George Bush’s weary glance at his wristwatch during a debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot—­and Romney’s tone toward Perry was unmistakably haughty.

The other bad moment with Perry, two months later in Iowa, was the infamous “bet.” Perry had been hammering Romney on an issue that combined flip-flopping and Obamney­care: whether Romney had altered the paperback edition of his book to give the impression that he had never favored the dreaded “individual mandate,” even for one hyper-liberal state. “You’ve raised that before, Rick, and you’re simply wrong,” Romney said, again with a tone of forced affability.

Perry was chuckling, and having fun. “It was true then,” he said, speaking over Romney. “And it’s true now!” He was cracking up, and soon the other candidates started laughing, and so did many in the crowd.

Romney kept on a big smile and, as he had months before, reached out his long arm to Perry. “I’ll tell you what.” At this point he opened his hand, to offer a let’s-make-a-deal handshake to Perry, and made one of his worst spontaneous-­reaction mistakes of the primary season. “Ten thousand bucks?” Perry did a double take. “Ten-thousand-dollar bet?,” Romney said again, salesman-smiling. There are split-second opportunities candidates seize or miss. Perry had missed many of them before, but this one, he made the most of. “I’m not in the bettin’ business,” he said in a still-amused and aw-shucks way, the crowd laughing along with him about the multiple symbolic missteps Romney had just made. Perry didn’t even need to spell out how remote the sum was from daily reality for most Americans; everyone understood. If Romney had said “a million bucks,” it would obviously have been hyperbolic; if he had said “a hundred bucks,” it would have been a serious sum but comprehensible. Romney had instinctively found exactly the wrong number. Had three or four such moments gone differently for Perry in the preceding months, he would be preparing to debate Obama now; with three or four similar mistakes against Obama, Romney could undo his own strengths.

No one I spoke with challenged the view that Romney well prepared is a debater who can do real damage. All his team has to do is anticipate every subject that might possibly come up.

The split-second episode that could create the biggest substantive problem for Romney this fall occurred in August 2011, in a Fox News debate just before the Iowa straw poll. Bret Baier asked which candidates would reject a budget-­balancing deal skewed 10-to-1 in favor of spending cuts rather than tax increases. All of the candidates’ hands shot up—Rick Santorum’s and Michele Bachmann’s first, but Romney’s just an instant behind. It was visible evidence of groupthink and resistance to compromise, and it is sure to show up in Democratic ads this fall. (If Jon Huntsman ever had a hope of distinguishing himself as a more moderate Republican, it vanished the instant he decided to join everyone else rather than seize the opportunity to speak up—all microphones were live—and challenge the premise of the question.) While the raise-your-hand moment was bad for Huntsman because of the chance he let go by, it was bad for Romney because of the predicament he was creating for himself in the general election by positioning himself so far to the right during the primary season.

The rightward movement of the party in the post–George W. Bush years required Romney—or, it created a temptation to which he readily succumbed—to take more-conservative stands than he had in the past, and than he might have preferred to defend during the general-election campaign. His embrace of the “Ryan budget,” with its de facto elimination of Medicare, is one example, because of the problems it creates with retirees in Florida and elsewhere. His increasingly tough tone about the menace of illegal immigration is another. In a debate in Florida last September, Rick Perry drew gasps and boos from the crowd when he defended the Texas version of the DREAM Act, under which children of illegal immigrants qualified for in-state tuition rates at Texas colleges. Perry’s position, an extension of George W. Bush’s efforts both as governor and as president to broaden the GOP’s appeal to Latino voters, would obviously have helped the party in the general-election campaign. “If you say we should not educate children who come into our state … through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” he said. But it was highly unpopular with the live audience in Florida, and Romney played to the crowd, claiming that Perry’s stance had created a “magnet” for illegal immigration and “makes no sense.” Romney kept up this pressure as long as Perry stayed in the race. At another debate in Florida, in January, Romney said he favored making conditions tough enough in America that illegal immigrants would “self-deport.” I happened to be watching that debate alongside a Texas Republican official who had been part of the George W. Bush/Karl Rove attempt to court the Latino vote. He grimaced at Romney’s comment and said, “These primaries cannot end soon enough,” so that Romney could “reset” his tone about immigration and rebuild his appeal to Latinos and Asian Americans.

The debates did not create Romney’s positioning problem, his need to move further right during the primaries than he would have liked for general-election purposes. The evolution of today’s Republican Party made that necessary. But the debates highlighted and accentuated the rightward pressure on Romney, for these were when rivals could accuse him to his face of not being conservative enough. The vociferous crowds, generally skewed toward Tea Party views, increased the sense that the debates were moving the whole field rightward. All candidates seemed momentarily taken aback when, at the Reagan Library debate last September, the crowd broke into spontaneous applause at Brian Williams’s mention that Rick Perry had overseen more executions than any other governor in modern times. But in most other debates, Romney, Santorum, Ging­rich, Cain, Bachmann (until her early departure), and Perry (except on immigration) repeatedly played to right-wing crowd response. (Ron Paul was running his own race; Jon Huntsman was left in limbo as the not-quite-different “different” candidate.)

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in May. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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