DURING an interview last week, U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, compared the race for the presidency to that of the proverbial tortoise and hare, with Republican challenger Mitt Romney the tortoise.
“We've heard the same narrative all along, since the primaries,” Lankford said — the idea that Romney was the steady, methodical candidate in a field of more compelling GOP personalities. Yet it was Romney who emerged as the Republican choice. He's continued his workmanlike ways since then, but if polling is to be believed, it hasn't helped him pull ahead of President Barack Obama.
Lankford, for one, isn't concerned. “I don't think it's falling apart,” he said of the Romney campaign, which got its biggest boost seven weeks ago when Romney named U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan his running mate. “The debates will change the narrative again.”
The first of the three presidential debates is Wednesday night. Here's hoping that Lankford's prediction is on the money. With a strong performance in Round One, Romney could indeed gain momentum for the final weeks of the campaign.
Obama's record in office is abysmal — the stimulus, Obamacare, the exploding deficit, unemployment above 8 percent for 46 straight months, a continuing decline in Americans' real disposable income, anemic growth rate for the economy. Yet somehow he's polling well among voters in the swing states that will decide the Nov. 6 election.
The challenge for Romney during the debates will be to strike a chord with those voters. As columnist George Will points out, debates are “not good venues for explaining ... well, anything. And October is a time for summations to the jury, not new submissions of evidence.”
Even so, Romney needs to do more than spell out Obama's many failings in office — those are evident, yet haven't moved the needle. Instead he must find a way, in the stilted format used in the debates, to break out of sound-bite mode and land a few haymakers.
Ronald Reagan did that late in the 1980 campaign, when he faced off against incumbent President Jimmy Carter. He dismissed Carter's whining about the state of the times by injecting, “There you go again.” He asked those watching the debate on television, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan got his answer a few days later when he won the election.
Republicans have been asking voters the same question in recent months. The answer is most definitely no. By just about any measure we're not better off than we were four years ago. Romney needs to continue to drive home that point while highlighting how he will change things for the better.
These three debates don't offer the best forum for that, but they do provide Romney the biggest audience he'll have between now and Election Day. If he's bold and blunt, he can indeed change the narrative for the better.