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.

By the fall of 1994, Edward Kennedy, then 62 years old, had spent more than half his life in the U.S. Senate. He had cruised to reelection five times after his only even slightly competitive race—the first one, which was a special election to fill the seat once held by his brother John­—nine months after he reached the constitutional minimum age of 30. But in 1994, Mitt Romney thought the time could be right to dethrone Kennedy. Romney was 47 years old and already rich from his years at Bain & Company and Bain Capital. The now-famous photo of him and other Bain Capital executives grinning as they clutched and bit wads of cash was 10 years in the past; under Romney as its CEO, Bain Capital had been a stunning success, beginning a 15-year run of returns five times greater than the overall stock market’s through that period. The year was shaping up as a very good one for Republicans. A Boston Globe poll in late September showed Kennedy barely in the lead over Romney, 48 percent to 46; another poll showed Romney ahead. A Newsday story was headlined “Kennedy in Fight of His Political Life.”

As it turned out, of course, Kennedy held on. Romney got 41 percent of the vote, which was more than any challenger before or after but still not even close to Kennedy’s 58 percent. Romney now looks back and says he knew he never had a chance and was running mainly because he felt a civic duty to stand up against “a man who I thought by virtue of the policies of the liberal welfare state had created a permanent underclass in America.” Romney put some $3 million of his own money into the race. He said of Kennedy at a Republican-primary debate early this year, “I was happy that he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me.”

But while the race was under way, Romney fought like a man trying hard to win. The Romney who took on Teddy Kennedy 18 years ago remains a highly useful guide to the candidate who will stand next to Barack Obama in the three debates scheduled this fall. Romney’s record then and in the years since suggests that if Obama is taking anything for granted about these encounters, he is making a mistake.

VIDEO: Fallows discusses clips that demonstrate Romney's debating strengths and weaknesses.

Mitt Romney is far less effective as a big-speech orator than Barack Obama, and in many other aspects of campaigning he displays what appear to be laboriously studied moves rather than anything that comes naturally. But debates are and have been his strength. He grew up enjoying “big, boisterous arguments about everything around the dinner table,” according to his campaign strategist and main debate-prep specialist, Stuart Stevens. “He loves the dialectic of arguing the different sides, and he’s most uncomfortable when no one is disagreeing with him.” He will enter this fall’s encounters with very recent, successful experience in a very wide range of formats and challenges.

In none of the Republican-primary debates was Romney judged the big loser; in many he was the clear winner, and as the campaign wore on, the dominant image from the debates was of a confident Romney, standing with a slight smile on his face and his hands resting easily in his pockets, looking on with calm amusement as the lesser figures squabbled among themselves and sometimes lashed out at him.

Civics teachers won’t want to hear this, but the easiest way to judge “victory” in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates’ ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language. By this standard, Ron Paul, with his chronically ill-fitting suits, often looked cranky; Rick Santorum often looked angry; Rick Perry initially looked pole­axed and confused; Jon Huntsman looked nervous; Newt Ging­rich looked overexcited—and so on through the list until we reach Mitt Romney, who almost always looked at ease. (As did Herman Cain, illustrating that body language is not everything.) Romney looked like the grown-up—the winner, the obvious candidate—with or without sound. “He is as good as it gets in debating,” former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who was the first major contender to drop out of the Republican race, told me. “He is poised, prepared, smart, strategic—tactical, too.”


Election 2012
Full coverage of the current campaign cycle including articles, videos, live chats, and more
Rhetorical Questions
An analysis of Barack Obama's performance during the 2008 primary debates
by James Fallows

The past two cycles of general-election debates have been anticlimactic. Everyone expected the college-debate whiz John Kerry to outperform the aphasic-seeming George W. Bush. He did, but it didn’t matter. For John McCain, the world financial crisis, plus his selection of Sarah Palin, was bringing his campaign down around him before he even stepped on a stage with Barack Obama. The only memorable aspect of their debates was McCain’s short-lived attempt to get out of them so that he could devote his full attention to developing financial-rescue policies.

This year’s exchanges have the potential to be different, and more dramatic. Romney is very strong as a debater but has also shown two repeated weaknesses: a thin command of policy details, and an awkwardness when taken by surprise.

When the subject is one he’s prepared for, he rarely falters. When it’s not, or when an exchange goes on longer or in a different direction than expected, many of his ad-libbed responses turn out to be mistakes (“I’ll bet you $10,000!”). Thus the Romney team has the impossible challenge of trying to imagine every question or attack line that might come up in debates with Obama, while the Obama team tries to imagine what Romney’s might have missed. This kind of chess game is always part of debate preparation, but it is unusually important this year, because the gap between Romney at his best and at his worst is so wide.

Barack Obama got himself in trouble only once during his primary and general-election debates four years ago. That was in January 2008, just after Obama’s surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, when a questioner at a New Hampshire debate asked Hillary Clinton about polls showing that people respected her but didn’t like her. She handled the question with perfect comic-dramatic poise and timing. First she feigned a crushed look and said that her feelings were hurt. Then she said, with melodramatic jokey pluck, “I’ll try to go on!” Finally she said of Obama, warmly, “He’s very likable! I agree with that.” Then, a moment later, and charmingly, “I don’t think I’m that bad.” Obama, obviously off balance, said in reply, “You’re likable enough, Hillary”—a line that was presumably meant to sound light but came across as coldly supercilious, in part because he didn’t even look at her when delivering it. Maybe this was the moment when Obama realized that jock-style put-down banter, common among men in certain circumstances and often associated with both Obama and George W. Bush, comes across very differently when applied by a man to a woman. Or maybe he just made a mistake—one of the very few in his hundreds of hours before cameras during his presidential campaign.

Obama got better, steadier, and more relaxed-seeming as the 2008 debates went on. But they were never his strength, compared with formal speeches, and his team surely realizes that many circumstances of this year’s debates will work to his disadvantage.

“The history is that challengers tend to profit, particularly in the first debate,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, told me in June. “Just the act of being on the stage with a president is an elevating thing.” This sounds like a small matter, but through the years, analysis of debate reactions has shown that the public takes a candidate more seriously after seeing him, for the first time, on equal footing with an incumbent president. The most famous example here, and the one whose implications are most ominous for Obama, is the sole debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, in 1980. Every objective factor was working against Carter at that point: the economy was terrible, his attempted rescue mission to free American hostages in Iran had been a disastrous failure, he’d had to fend off a challenge in his own party by Teddy Kennedy. But still the polls showed a very close race between Carter and Reagan, until that debate, just one week before Election Day. Reagan’s sunny demeanor—­loose and expansive, while Carter was tight and tense—apparently reassured voters who had given up on Carter but worried that Reagan was too extreme. Tracking-poll results changed immediately. A week later, Reagan carried 44 states.

As a campaigner and orator, Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. But the great danger for Obama is a set of debates (not to mention an entire campaign) that follows the 1980 pattern.

In this year’s debates, Barack Obama’s most inspiring and powerful message as a candidate will no longer be available to him. Four years ago, “Change we can believe in” suggested that things could be different and much better with him in charge. Now even his most fervent backers doubt how much better things are likely to get in a second Obama term. His critics put the same point more harshly. “This time, the president won’t have the luxury of making stuff up and speaking aspirationally,” Tim Pawlenty told me on a campaign swing through Pennsylvania with Romney in June. “He actually has to defend his record and attach facts to it.”

One more factor is working against Obama in the debates. When the economy is bad and an incumbent is beset, the challenger’s task is simplified. He doesn’t need to belabor the case against the incumbent. Reality has already done that; everyone knows what’s wrong with the president they have now. All the challenger has to do is say: “Look me over. I’ll be okay in this job. You can feel comfortable with me.” This is what Ronald Reagan did in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992. Meanwhile, the incumbent has to work twice as hard, in order to make two arguments at once. He must prove something about himself: that, while battered, he’s still energetic, visionary, and up to the job. He must also prove something about his opponent: that he is bad for the country, unready, and overall worse.

And he must do all this without seeming defensive or tense; while appearing easily in command to those who see images without hearing words; and, in Obama’s uniquely straitjacketed case, while avoiding the slightest hint of being an “angry black man.” A carefully deployed flash of anger can be an important debating tool for the right candidate—one who doesn’t seem, Dole- or Gingrich-like, to be irritable overall. Bill Clinton gave one example in 1992 during a primary debate, after Jerry Brown accused him of favoring Hillary Clinton’s law firm with Arkansas state business. Clinton shot back, furious: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife.” It worked because it seemed genuine and was not Clinton’s standard tone. Racial imagery gives Barack Obama much less leeway for even justified rage, and he has disciplined himself to avoid such displays. (See Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Fear of a Black President” on this subject.)

If economic trends are bad enough—or, improbably, good enough—to turn the election into a runaway, we might look back and say that the debates didn’t matter. But in what gives every sign of being a close, bitter, expensive, and mostly negative contest, the way these men interact onstage could make a major difference. Debates played an undeniable role in the victory of John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon, in 1960; of Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford, in 1976; of Ronald Reagan over Carter, in 1980; of Bill Clinton over George H. W. Bush, in 1992; and of George W. Bush over Al Gore, in 2000. (Lyndon Johnson refused to debate in 1964, as did Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972.) This year’s results could add to that list.

Let’s consider the skills Mitt Romney will bring to this contest, starting with those on display during his challenge to Teddy Kennedy, 18 years ago.

What Romney Showed Us in 1994

I’ve gone back to see the videos of those debates, as part of a recent immersion in the omnibus Romney debate archive. This collection also includes his three head-to-head debates against the Democratic nominee, state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, during Romney’s successful run for the governorship of Massachusetts, in 2002, plus debates with the minor-­party nominees that year; his debates with John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and others during his unsuccessful presidential run in 2008; and the 27 sessions, totaling what seems like a million hours, from the current cycle’s primary debates, which started back in May 2011 with one in South Carolina sponsored by Fox News. (I admit it: I did a lot of skipping through this year’s batch, most of which I’d seen in real time.)

The first Mitt Romney–Edward Kennedy debate was held in Boston, at Faneuil Hall, two weeks before the election. Press accounts generally held that Kennedy “won,” and on the strength of that and powerful anti-Romney ads, he rapidly opened up a big lead. In part this was because the Romney team had misplayed the ever-important “expectations” game. “Romney had so insistently demanded debates that he got expectations right through the roof,” Robert Shrum, Kennedy’s chief strategist during the campaign, told me recently. “Their message was that Kennedy was old and out of it,” so even at less than his best, Kennedy could look “surprisingly” good. In retrospect, the quick swing of support to Kennedy also has the feel of a public looking for an excuse to forgive a wayward but familiar figure after giving him an instructive scare. On the merits, though, Romney was strong.

The very first question, from Sally Jacobs of The Boston Globe, was mercilessly blunt. “Senator, you are the fourth-most-senior member of the United States Senate,” she said. “Your opponent is a novice who has never held or even run for office. Why is this race even close?”Kennedy stared down at the lectern, shifted his weight back and forth, didn’t say anything for a few seconds. He looked bad: overweight, creased, baggy-suited, downcast. He eventually came up with an answer, about the hundreds of thousands of jobs Massachusetts had lost. “When there is loss of jobs, there is uncertainty,” he said. “When there is uncertainty there is anxiety, and when there is anxiety there is a willingness to listen to simple easy answers”—like those he said his opponent would present. The moderator, Ken Bode, turned and said, “Mr. Romney?” Romney leaned forward and began talking as soon as Bode was done. He looked good: lean and angular, the tallest man on the stage, a full head of perfectly combed all-dark hair we would now liken to Don Draper’s, body language suggesting engagement rather than withdrawal. He looked directly at Jacobs and said, “Sally, the real answer to your question is that people in Massachusetts have been watching, for 32 years, Senator Kennedy. They appreciate what he has done, but they recognize that our world has changed and that the answers of the 1960s aren’t working anymore.” Within 15 seconds, Romney had laid out the frame for his entire argument: that it was possible to love Teddy Kennedy but recognize that his time had passed, and that the “real” answers weren’t the ones Kennedy could present. This is instantly recognizable as his frame for the 2012 presidential race as well: his opponent is likable but not up to the job. In the next 15 seconds of his answer in that Boston debate, he got out the rest of his case: “People recognize that government jobs just can’t do it for Massachusetts. We need private-sector jobs. And so they are looking for people who have skill and experience in the private sector, who know how to help create jobs, who will do the work of traveling from state to state and around the country to bring jobs to Massachusetts.”Through the rest of that evening and in the follow-up debate two days later, Romney did not succeed in breaking Teddy Kennedy’s connection with the people who had voted for him six times before. But he did his level best, with a variety of tools and tactics he has relied on ever since.

• He came prepared to attack—in his first debate, with criticism of the Kennedy family for not offering health-care coverage to some workers at its Merchandise Mart business, in Chicago (“The height of hypocrisy!”). Kennedy fumed, and answered (Shrum says Kennedy had known this attack was coming), and later even tried to turn it to his advantage with a banner-wave of the Kennedy heritage: “My family didn’t go into politics to make money, and quite frankly, we have paid the price.” Still, any time Kennedy spent on this topic was a negative for him.

• He came prepared to defend, as he did in the opening debate with the second question, which was whether Massachusetts could afford to lose the clout that went with Kennedy’s seniority in Washington: “This idea of clout sometimes gets overstated … The taxpayers of Massachusetts are seeing through that … We are the ones paying for all that pork.”

• He anticipated many of Kennedy’s arguments and had counters ready that would work at more than the logical level. In the second debate, an angry Kennedy wound up his argument about gun control by saying, “I’m not yielding to anyone about guns in our society. I know enough about them.” Romney, unflapped, immediately came back, “You do know enough about it, Senator. You’ve raised that before. That’s the last resort each time this question comes up. But it’s not necessary here.” Going directly at Kennedy on the family-tragedy front was risky, but Romney didn’t blink.

• He had thought about how to condescend, and politely insult. In the second debate, in western Massachusetts, Kennedy’s face lit up when a questioner began, “I first met and talked with you back in 1962—” Kennedy immediately and happily broke in: “I remember very well! It was North Adams, at the Fall Foliage Festival.” Kennedy might actually have remembered, or might simply have been joking about the idea that he would remember. Either way, the man was charmed. A few minutes later, answering a question about welfare reform, Romney said of Kennedy: “He’s been there 32 years … He knows not only the trees, and the forest, but he knows the leaves, one by one. In my view, the last thing we need is to have someone who’s been there all this time forming this plan, trying to reform it one more time.”

• He even showed a flash of sly wit. In the first debate, Kennedy was asked to describe his greatest personal failings. Somberly, he said that he had not always “lived up to all the expectations” of the people of Massachusetts, but that his life had changed with his recent marriage to his second wife, Victoria. When the question came to Romney, he acted as if he was ready to keep going about Kennedy’s failings, and then said, with a faux-innocent grin, “I presume about myself?”

• He was unwaveringly on message and brought every question on every topic back to his main theme: Senator Kennedy was great for his time; that time has passed; I know about business, which is what we need.

“He has strong core family values, and religious values,” a man who worked with Romney during his years as governor told me. “But he doesn’t really have core policy values.”

Romney also showed weaknesses that have persisted, even though he managed to minimize their effects in this year’s primary debates. His analysis of any policy rarely moved past the level of abstraction: the problem is too much regulation, so the solution is less regulation, lower taxes, and more incentives for small-business growth. In his Kennedy debates and afterward, this reliance on generalities seemed to reflect both a political and a professional outlook. Politically, a Republican skepticism of govern­ment in general reduces the incentive to learn the fine points of difference among public programs. Professionally, Romney’s background as a consultant and private-equity investor has conditioned him to offer his managerial skills and analytic ability, and to worry about specific answers only after he’s been signed on to deal with a troubled enterprise. Robert Walker, a former congressman from Pennsylvania who chaired the Ging­rich campaign in this year’s primaries, said that Romney’s trademark avoidance of detail arose from this aspect of his background. “Businessmen and consultants like to sell in glowing generalities, because they are never sure what unexpected things they’ll find when they dig into your problems,” he told me.

In the 1994 debates, Romney’s evident lack of interest in the work of governing roused Kennedy to one of his best unscripted moments. Kennedy was arguing that however Massachusetts voters might feel about Romney himself, they should remember that in adding one more Republican to the Senate, they would be bringing Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and the rest of the party that much closer to Senate control. “The fact of the matter is party discipline,” he said, warming to a discussion of the Senate functions to which he had devoted his life and for which Romney displayed a lofty “It’s all politics” disdain.

“Is that how you run your operation down there?,” Romney asked dismissively. “You bet it is!,” Kennedy said with uncharacteristic speed and emphasis. “That’s exactly how.” Kennedy was in effect saying that his hands-on experience in government was more relevant to the job of being a senator than whatever Romney had learned in private equity. Romney, apparently taken by surprise, had no good comeback. “I think other politicians get the feeling that he looks down on them, as politicians,” Steve Bogden, a policy aide and speechwriter who worked for John McCain in the 2008 campaign and for Jon Huntsman this year, told me. “They pick up that he feels he is a better person for not having been in politics”—a way he still views and presents himself, despite having run once for senator, once (successfully) for governor, and twice for president in the past 18 years.

If you were to watch Romney’s debates against Shannon O’Brien for the governorship in 2002, you’d see a less dramatic (because of the absence of Ted Kennedy) version of the same traits. So too with Romney’s primary debates four years ago. His strengths, again, are faultless preparation, crisp and precise expression, a readiness both to attack and to defend, and an ability to stay purely on message. His weaknesses are thin factual knowledge on many policy issues, a preference to talk in generalities—and a palpable awkwardness when caught unprepared and forced to improvise.

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.)

The Matchup Ahead

We now have a longer debate-performance track record for Mitt Romney than for any other figure with national ambitions. (Hillary Clinton first entered debates in her own right, rather than on her husband’s behalf, 12 years ago. Joe Biden ran for president in 1988 but then sat out national campaigns for the next 20 years.) And the meaning of that record is very clear: Romney is strong when prepared, and weak and error-prone when forced to improvise.

Some politicians have a gift for talking their way past factual details they’ve forgotten or complex policy questions they have yet to resolve. Romney does not. For instance, on June 15, a Friday, President Obama announced his executive-order version of the DREAM Act, to stop deportations of many illegal immigrants who had come to the United States as children. The next afternoon, Bob Schieffer taped a Face the Nation interview with Romney and asked four times whether Romney would repeal the order. For some reason, Romney and his advisers had not yet worked out his position on this issue. Some politicians would have been able to finesse that fact, and to do it without a second’s delay. (You see, Bob, this is an issue that I take so seriously, and that is so important to our country’s future, that I’m not going to try to deal with it in a quick sound-bite way—though your question is a very good one. A week from now, in El Paso [Dayton/Orlando], I’m going to talk about immigration, citizenship, and America’s future. No issue matters more [blah blah blah], and I am going to give it the serious treatment the American people deserve.) Other politicians would already know, from having worked through the issue over the years, what their policy would be. Romney didn’t know, and he couldn’t finesse. Four times Schieffer asked his question, and four times, clumsily, Romney declined to answer.

From nearly everyone I spoke with about Romney, which included his present supporters and those who had campaigned against him over the years, I heard variants of what I was told by Robert Reich. Reich, who was Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, vied for the chance to debate Romney in the 2002 Massachusetts governor’s race. (Eventually, Reich came in second in the Democratic primary to Shannon O’Brien, whom Romney then beat.)

“He will have done a huge amount of homework,” Reich said of the Romney he had observed in Massachusetts and expects to see in this fall’s debates. “He will have moot debates with debating partners, as they all do. But he truly will have internalized a lot of the questions and the most-effective responses. He will have the zingers ready, and he knows the importance of those zinger lines. He will have it down—even the humor. He will know that self-deprecating humor is enormously useful, and will have rehearsed it.”

When I asked David Axelrod, who had helped prepare candidate Obama for his debates with John McCain, what differences he foresaw this time, he also stressed Romney’s systematic preparation. “As a debater, he is remarkably disciplined,” he said. “It is very unlikely that he is going to come in there without knowing much of what he is going to say, or without having practiced it relentlessly or delivered it over and over. He is very good at internalizing the one-liners and knowing when to fire. And he can run off large set pieces from memory pretty effectively.”

Stuart Stevens, who worked for George Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008, made the preparations sound more laid-back and informal: “My experience has been, these guys pretty much know what they need to get ready.” Because the “expectations game” plays so large a role in media assessment of debate performance, Axelrod naturally has an interest in talking up Romney’s skills and preparatory effort, and Stevens in talking them down. Still, 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.

And what of the president? His advantages are obvious. He is the president; he has been on this stage before; there is almost no question or criticism he has not heard and handled in the past four years. Moreover, the consistent evidence about Romney’s strengths and weaknesses simplifies Obama’s strategy for attack. “It is very important to unbalance Romney,” as Robert Reich put it. “When you have someone who is that scripted and wooden, you have to push him into spontaneity”—with a factual-knowledge point, a new sort of criticism, or a policy choice that somehow Romney has not yet thought through.

Obama was not always quick or good with one-liners during his 2008 primary debates. But he grew visibly more at ease as the debates went on, and he scored effectively several times when going on offense against the formidable Hillary Clinton. The clearest example came in a debate three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, when a reporter read out a list of former Clinton-­administration members who were now advising Obama. Given this lineup, how could Obama’s foreign policy be in any sense a “break from the past”? Hillary Clinton laughed when she heard the question, and said, wickedly, “I want to hear that!” Obama waited a beat, turned to her, and said with a slight smile, “Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.” He occasionally used a similarly sly stiletto on questioners. In a CNN/YouTube debate in 2007, a questioner asked Obama via a YouTube video if he was “black enough.” With perfect timing, Obama waited; then gave a knowing grin; then said, “You know, when I’m catching a cab in Manhattan …”; then enjoyed the laughs and cheers; then moved into his “real” answer, about the way “race permeates our society.”

Obama is also in a better position to play defense than he was four years ago. “He didn’t know enough about policy—then,” a member of Clinton’s 2008 team told me. “He couldn’t sustain a long discussion about, say, health care the way that she could. So our strategy was to keep drilling down and get into the detailed follow-ups.” Now the situation is reversed. Obama will be the one hoping that discussions get into details, Romney the one hoping they stay on generalities.

Yet here are the forces working against Obama, which are more complex than Romney’s simple challenge to hit the books and practice, practice, practice.

• He faces the burden of disappointing reality. Four years ago, he ran on “Change you can believe in.” Now the message is unavoidably “Things could be worse.”

• He faces the consequences of the presidential bubble. No one becomes president who is in any sense “humble,” and the daily circumstances of the job separate this one person from the rest of human existence. “You are in a bubble, and you don’t know it,” the presidential scholar Samuel Popkin told me. Everyone stands when a president enters the room; the traffic is stopped wherever he goes; no one disagrees to his face except in the most careful way. “Nobody calls you on things, nobody questions your motives,” Popkin says. “When someone finally does, it is really hard for presidents to avoid showing their sense of indignation. They know they are doing the right thing for the country, and somehow these ingrates aren’t giving them credit for it.” An incumbent who reveals even a flash of the self-pity that many politicians feel is in trouble. This extends to Obama’s tendency to trace today’s difficulties back to their George W. Bush–era origins. The historians may well agree with him, but to an election-year audience, after he has spent nearly four years in the world’s most powerful job, this inevitably sounds like whining.

• He faces the temptation not to prepare. A president has every reason to postpone or avoid mock-debate sessions. The schedule is full; the necessity to play-act is demeaning; emergencies crop up. And thus a president avoids practicing skills that are indeed different from what he does day by day. “This is one of the reasons incumbent presidents tend to lose the first debate,” David Axelrod told me. “Generally, they have not had a debate for four years. You do your press conferences, but there are no time limits or rebuttals. We went through the most gifted sparring partner anyone has ever had last time, in Hillary Clinton. We don’t have that this time.” Even allowing for possible flattery of a former foe who is now an invaluable member of the Obama team, the point remains: an incumbent president is never challenged the way a mere candidate is.

• And this specific president may suffer the burden of unrealistic expectations. When matched up against Obama, Robert Reich said, Romney “is going to be debating somebody who is not nearly as good a debater as his reputation.” For all his accomplishments as an orator, Reich said, the president under real-time questioning “can seem kind of wooden”—interestingly, the same word he used about Romney—“and even at a loss for words.” Obama’s detractors call this the teleprompter phenomenon; his admirers, a professorial or writerly air. Either way, it adds drama to what is ahead. “Even if Romney is scripted and not spontaneous, he will come across as ‘on his game,’ ” Reich said. “The danger for Obama is that Romney can still look better than Obama, if Obama does not have the same degree of discipline about the debates.”

The main “known” of these debates is that they will probably matter. One major unknown is whether they will matter mainly because of a positive revelation, like Mitt Romney’s demonstrating, as Ronald Reagan did against Jimmy Carter, that he is a comfortable figure to whom people unhappy with Barack Obama can turn. Or because of a negative one, like Richard Nixon’s sweaty discomfort in 1960, Gerald Ford’s misstatement about Poland’s freedom in 1976, or Dan Quayle’s comparing himself to John F. Kennedy in 1988.

Each candidate has strong incentives to “go negative.” The fundamental logic of Mitt Romney’s campaign is that the Obama administration has placed America on the wrong track. Probably in every debate, he will say: “The president said he would fix the economy; he didn’t; he has to go.” Barack Obama has no choice but to argue that, as bad as things might be now, under Romney and a Tea Party–powered Republican government they would be much worse.

Perhaps the candidates will find incentives to “go positive” as well. For Romney, this would mean demonstrating that independents and wavering Democrats would have little to fear with him in command. For Obama, it would mean agreeing with Romney that America has big problems, but arguing that in a comparison of visions, plans, and values, his stand up better. Positive or negative, the stakes will be high.