Debate presents Romney with a chance to shake up the race

And Obama is giving him plenty of targets

Mitts off

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Mitt Romney is trailing President Barack Obama both in national polls and in crucial swing states. But the margins are small, Obama’s lead is not insurmountable, and the country remains deeply divided in the run-up to the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, offering Romney his best chance yet to shake up the race.

Dusting himself off after weeks on the defensive—his campaign was beset by a series of gaffes, including the publication of a secretly taped talk to mega-donors in which he insulted the 47 per cent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes—Romney is back on the attack. And, lately, Obama has been giving him plenty of targets.

The deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11 is raising questions about the administration’s handling of the apparent security vacuum in post-Gadhafi Libya, from the inadequate protection of U.S. diplomats to the White House’s shifting explanation for what actually took place. The Romney campaign is using the incident to portray an administration overwhelmed by events in the Middle East. “I mean, turn on the TV and it reminds you of 1979 Tehran but they’re burning our flags in capitals all around the world. They’re storming our embassies,” said Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, while campaigning in Lima, Ohio, this week.

White House spokesman Jay Carney initially said there was no evidence of a pre-planned attack and blamed the killings on a spontaneous mob “reaction to a video that Muslims, many Muslims find offensive.” Later he conceded it was likely an orchestrated terrorist attack. In an interview with National Public Radio, Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif claimed that foreigners had infiltrated Benghazi and planned the attack. “The idea that this criminal and cowardly act was a spontaneous protest that just spun out of control is completely unfounded and preposterous,” said el-Megarif.

Obama drew further criticism for an interview on 60 Minutes, in which he referred to the violence in Libya as “bumps in the road.” Romney seized on the remark to accuse Obama of minimizing the murder of an American ambassador for the first time since the Carter administration and projecting weakness to America’s foes. During the same interview, Obama was asked whether he felt pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to harden his policy toward Iran, Obama replied: “When it comes to our national security decisions—any pressure I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out—any noise that’s out there.” Referring to Netanyahu as “noise” and then going on to describe Israel as only “one of our closest allies in the region,” Obama drew harsh criticism from Republicans who claimed he had disparaged America’s closest ally in the Middle East. “Not even under Jimmy Carter did relations between the United States and Israel sink as low as they have fallen under Barack Obama,” declared Republican Sen. John Barrasso.

And while the United Nations General Assembly convened in New York, Obama took more fire for neglecting to meet with any foreign leaders one on one, instead using his time in New York to tape an appearance with the women of The View, a frothy daytime talk show. “We’re at the mercy of events rather than shaping the events in the Middle East,” Romney told ABC News. “And the President doesn’t have time to actually spend time with leaders of these nations, particularly Bibi Netanyahu—I find that very troubling.”

Meanwhile, Romney and Ryan launched a new tour of the battleground state of Ohio that focused on the economy. “[Democrats] see the national debt clock staring them in the face. They see a debt crisis, and they just ignore [it] and pretend it didn’t even happen,” Ryan said in Cincinnati. (He was less clear about how his plan to cut taxes and increase military spending could be squared with a promise to reduce the debt.) Romney was talking up his plans to increase domestic energy production, approve the Keystone pipeline from Canada, to negotiate more trade agreements and to crack down on Chinese intellectual property theft—all areas in which he said Obama has fallen short. In a speech to the Clinton Global Initiative, Romney also laid out how he would transform foreign aid into a policy focused on encouraging free enterprise in developing countries to help sustain economies in the long term. He also talked about his plans to reform education by rewarding teachers based on performance measures. “And if teachers say, ‘Well, there’s no good measurement system,’ we say, ‘Well, let’s look for one,’ ” he said in a speech Tuesday.

His campaign also stepped up efforts to counter his Gordon Gekko image by spotlighting his charitable side. The release of his personal tax returns showed he paid a relatively low tax rate of 15 per cent in 2011 because his income comes from investment income, which receives favorable treatment when compared with ordinary salaries. But it also showed he gave 30 per cent of his income to charity the same year. Said the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos: “That’s a narrative that has to get out there. These are kind, compassionate, extraordinarily generous people.” Meanwhile, a group of female executives have started their own speaking tour to travel around the U.S. talking about Romney’s character. At a time when Obama enjoys a large lead with women voters, they noted that Romney chose women as both his lieutenant governor and his chief of staff. “Mitt was recognized every year he was governor for having more women in cabinet and senior positions than any other governor in the country—women made up half Mitt’s cabinet,” blogged tour organizer Cindy Gillespie, who worked with Romney while he was governor of Massachusetts and at the Salt Lake Olympics, which he headed. She described herself as “completely, totally, absolutely fed up” with the negative image that many women have of her former colleague.

Of course, Romney’s biggest chance to shake up the race will come with the first presidential debate next week in Denver, which will focus on the economy and health care. “He really needs to undo some of the damage that has been done,” says Alan Schroeder, journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston, who has written several books on presidential debates. “He’s got the likeability problem that others have suffered from—Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, people who just aren’t warm and fuzzy figures.”

While the candidates are evenly matched in oratorical skills, Romney has the advantage after having sparred over and over again during the Republican primary. “Romney has the benefit of having been on the debate stage a lot recently. I think Romney is aggressive as a debater. He is not afraid to go after his opponent,” said Schroeder. “Obama has not done a debate in four years and in those years he has been deferred to as President. For previous incumbent presidents that has been a bit of a problem.”

While Obama will be pressed to defend his economic record, Romney will likely face tough questions from moderator Jim Lehrer, the former PBS news anchor, on how exactly he would balance the budget while still carrying out the large tax cuts he has promised.

And he’ll need a good answer.

“A win for Romney would perk up the coverage and make it more of a horse race again and give Romney some momentum,” says Schroeder. But historically many debates don’t produce a clear winner. “A debate that is a draw,” notes Schroeder, “is advantage Obama.”

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