Mitt Romney has a month to turn around a campaign that trails President Obama’s in nearly every swing state, and he won’t get a better chance than tonight. Romney’s team thought it would have several big chances to introduce its candidate to the nation and allow him to pull ahead in a tight race: at the end of the primaries, when he became the de facto Republican nominee; when he announced his running mate; at the Tampa convention; and in the debates.
The first three fizzled. That leaves the debates as the do-or-die opportunity for Romney to change the trajectory of a race that’s in danger of slipping away. This would be difficult for any candidate. Being the aggressor is risky and hard to pull off without looking desperate or nuts. It’ll be especially hard for Romney, who is extremely risk-averse and whose rare moments of spontaneity tend to backfire. (“I’ll bet you $10,000!”)
One indicator I’ll be looking for is what audience Romney seems to be addressing. Despite the flap about an anticipated “Etch a Sketch” moment, when he would modify his positions for a broader audience, Romney has continued to campaign as if Fox News viewers were the only people he needed to reach. He is so steeped in this universe, its idiom (“redistribution”), and its litany of grievances (“You didn’t build that”) that he seems not to recognize how little appeal they hold for the independents and disillusioned Democrats he’ll need to bring over to his side.
Romney is capable of speaking to such voters—you don’t get elected governor of Massachusetts if you can’t persuade independents and Democrats. And although he’s done a terrible job of touting it, he has a business background and a knowledge of the economy that many voters continue to find intriguing. What he needs to do is explain in ordinary language how the skills he possesses will make life better for ordinary Americans if he’s elected president. (Doing so might also alleviate some of the damage from his “47 percent” remark.)
Lately, there have been signs that Romney is finally beginning to grasp this. Call them green shoots: His statement this week that he would not overturn Obama’s executive order giving work permits to young undocumented immigrants; his suggestion to cap tax deductions. Romney could conceivably go further in this direction—by, for instance, proposing to extend the payroll tax cut, which Democrats are preparing to abandon despite its benefit to the middle class.
If Romney is to chart a winning path to the White House, that’s the direction he’ll have to take. It should be clear by the end of the night whether he realizes this—and thus whether he has a realistic shot of getting there.