Judging by word coming from the Obama campaign, Tuesday night's second presidential debate at Hofstra University could be the greatest do-over in history. The president has been scrutinizing Mitt Romney's every word from the first debate in Denver, and now, nearly two weeks later, he has his answers ready to go.
Early Monday morning, on the eve of Debate Two, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina sent out a long memo to reporters headlined "The Real Romney, Translated." The memo focused on nine statements Romney made during the first debate, plus a few from running mate Paul Ryan in the vice presidential debate. After each statement, Messina offered "translations" explaining what the GOP candidates really meant.
For example, quoting Romney's vow that he "will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes on middle-income families," Messina made the case that Romney will simply have to do so to pay for his tax-cut proposal. Quoting Romney's promise to "bring people together and get the job done," Messina argued Romney never did that as governor of Massachusetts. And quoting Romney's statement that "I love great schools," Messina attacked Romney's education proposals.
The memo was, in other words, a 2,800-word manifesto of what Barack Obama should have said at the first debate.
Besides his coulda-woulda-shoulda strategy, the president also plans, apparently, to attack Romney for appearing moderate at the first debate. "Mitt Romney will say and do anything, regardless of whether it's true, to become president," Obama campaign spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters Monday morning. "And no doubt over the last couple of days while he's been practicing and preparing for the debate, he spent time memorizing deceptions and ways to hide from his 'severely conservative' positions." The president, Psaki said, will call Romney on it.
Maybe it will work. But Obama has two big problems going into the second showdown with Romney. One, he needs to win just to level the score. And two, even if he wins at Hofstra, it's likely the second debate will have fewer viewers and receive less attention than the first. So the president actually needs not only to win, but to win big to return to an equal debate footing with Romney after the disaster in Denver.
What can Obama do? For some Democrats, the answer is much shorter than a 2,800-word memo. "The first thing he can do is show up," says a well-connected party strategist who shares the Democratic view that the president disastrously failed to engage in Denver. "He needs to be Joe Biden without the smirks."
The strategist wants to see a forceful Obama -- a really forceful Obama -- take on Romney. "The '47 percent,' he ought to be shoving up Romney's a--," the Democrat says. "Romney can say he apologized. But Obama can say an apology doesn't change things. Romney didn't misspeak. That was a two-minute oration that basically gave Romney's view of America."
That degree of forcefulness might make the Democratic base happy; they've been beside themselves with anger and anxiety after Denver. But what about the voters who want to see each candidate lay out his positions, who don't mind the candidates offering contrasts with the other guy, but don't want to see a nuclear war onstage? The newly aggressive Obama has to keep them in mind.
"You can overcompensate, and he has to be careful not to," the Democratic strategist says. "You can't go from being a pussycat to a pit bull."
The worry for the president is that even if he wins, or draws even, it just won't be as big a deal as that night in Denver. Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who has played President Obama in Romney's debate prep sessions, says second debates generally don't matter as much as the first go-around. "They never do, typically, with the exception of Ronald Reagan's second debate, when he came back so strong," says Portman. "It's hard to match that first debate in terms of people watching and the impact it's going to have."
A few days after the first debate, I asked a member of Romney's circle whether they were planning for Obama to be better the next time. "We didn't plan for him to be bad in the first one," the adviser replied.
Now, with Obama fully prepared, Romney can use all those answers he practiced for the Obama attacks that didn't come in Denver. Whether the voters will give the president a do-over is another matter altogether.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.