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Obama and Romney know the peril of debate missteps


Presidential debates are as closely scrutinized for gaffes as for policy pronouncements, something President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney know all too well.

Both candidates can arguably trace some of their political success to opponents’ missteps in debates, and both Obama and Romney are acutely aware that a cringeworthy debate moment can do as much – if not more – to alter the trajectory of a campaign as a good zinger.

The Obama and Romney campaigns have downplayed expectations for their respective candidates’ debate performances, almost to the point of comedy. But both candidates know that it’s better for them to exceed low expectations than to have to clear a high bar.

Romney’s debate shortly before the election in his 2002 bid for governor offers an instructive example. Romney entered the showdown trailing Democrat Shannon O’Brien by a few points in most polls, but the two of them failed to land many blows for much of the debate until they encountered a seemingly mundane question about parental consent for minors seeking abortions.

O’Brien responded to a question from the moderator (which, as a matter of full disclosure, was my father, Tim Russert) by saying she favored lowering the age at which girls need parental consent to obtain an abortion (18) to match the legal age of consent in Massachusetts (16).

“The age of consent for having sexual relations is lower than the age of 18, so I certainly think if someone is able to engage in that activity that they should be adult enough to make the decision.”

Romney said he would leave the current laws unchanged. O’Brien’s response to a follow-up point, about how Massachusetts minors needed parental consent to get a tattoo, offered a more lasting debate moment.

“You want to see my tattoo?” she jokingly said.

The incident hurt O’Brien with independents and Catholics in Massachusetts with so little time to recover before the election. Massachusetts political analyst Jon Keller of CBS Boston WBZ-TV recounted the moment as O’Brien’s downfall in his book titled “The Bluest State.” 

“O’Brien’s dismissal of parental consent rights and her flip tattoo comment caused a sensation, and her remarks dominated talk-radio chatter in the campaign’s final days. On Election Day, Romney romped. He carried 56 percent of independents as well as 52 percent of self-described moderates. He mopped up with Catholics, tripling the margin of the previous Republican governor.”

Romney, of course, went on to serve as governor of Massachusetts before twice seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

In his 2012 bid for the GOP nod, Romney certainly re-learned lessons about navigating presidential debates. His line about why he wouldn’t employ a landscaping firm that employed illegal immigrants (“I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake!”) and his misbegotten $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry proved to be lasting moments to the former Massachusetts governor’s detriment in the debate.

And as if to underscore how damning a single lapse can be, Romney is certainly familiar with Perry’s own gaffe – the “oops” moment when the Texas governor simply forgot which three federal agencies he’d promised to eliminate.

The lessons are familiar for Obama, too. He saw when then-Sen. Hillary Clinton struggled with an answer about providing drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, a difficult moment that hurt her in her protracted primary battle versus Obama.

When asked at an Oct. 30, 2007 primary debate at Drexel University whether she backed a plan by the state of New York to grant drivers licenses to illegal immigrant, Clinton gave an elusive answer that seemed to further muddle her opinion on the issue.

She said: “You know, this is where everybody plays ‘gotcha.’ It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with serious problems. We have failed. And George Bush has failed. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York, we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows.”

Clinton had been seen as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination prior to that point, but her opponents – which included Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) and Obama – to pounce.

“Well, I was confused on Senator Clinton's answer,” Obama said. “I can't tell whether she was for it or against it. And I do think that is important. One of the things that we have to do in this country is to be honest about the challenges that we face…Immigration is a difficult issue. But part of leadership is not just looking backwards and seeing what's popular or trying to gauge popular sentiment. It's about setting a direction for the country. And that's what I intend to do as president.”

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, authors of the definitive book about the 2008 election, “Game Change,” described the incident in that work:

“But whatever the confluence of causes and effects, the damage to the front-runner from the Drexel debate and its aftermath was more severe than anyone in Hillaryland knew. The inevitable candidate was suddenly revealed as vulnerable. The flawless campaign looked fallible. The Clinton Juggernaut had a hole in its hull and water was rushing in.”

In a span of one debate question Clinton went from the inevitable nominee to fighting a long, drawn out primary that eventually ended in a humbling defeat and allow Obama to become the Democratic nominee and eventually president.

So while the conventional wisdom is that one debate won’t totally alter this election, it should be noted that debates can significantly alter the trajectory of a race and even decide them. The two men debating in Denver tonight know that better than anybody.