Mitt Romney won more than just a debate in Denver; he won an opportunity to take the presidency away from Barack Obama. If he plays his cards right, he can repeat his own history and become the 45th President of the United States.
Until the evening got under way, Romney was on the verge of becoming a cartoon character. Obama’s admen spent millions during the summer reducing him to a one-dimensional figure, a rich, heartless plutocrat who cared nothing for the people he was courting. That changed with the debate. Gone was the W. Mitt Scissorhands of Obama’s relentless ad attacks. Instead, Romney looked comfortable in his skin, at ease with ideas, happy to be there and full of confidence. Voters got to see him with no filter. It was like meeting someone you had never met. And for a lot of us who know and respect him, it was therapeutic to see. (For Obama, the look was not so refreshing. After the debate, the Secret Service probably considered giving the President a new code name: Mr. Sandman.)
In ways that were not apparent at first, the debate recast the race as a choice between a smile and a smirk. Romney’s first opportunity is to lock in the chance to be the smiling, optimistic face of American politics, much as Ronald Reagan was in the 1980s. Romney now looks like the more excited of the pair, the candidate brimming with ideas, the one who seems to want the job more and relish its challenges. That’s always very appealing, but especially in times of economic pain and uncertainty. For more than a year the President’s shaky management of the economy has made him the country’s second choice for President. (Romney’s problem had been that he was Americans’ third choice.) But now, if Mitt can capture the role of Mr. Big-Picture Confidence while Obama sticks with his grinding, nit-picking strategy of running a small campaign about small things, the race could continue to move in Romney’s favor.
The second opportunity is about Romney’s image as a problem solver. In the nick of time, he’s freed himself from the ideological-litmus-test drudgery of the Republican primaries and made it clear that he is first and foremost a friendly, economic fix-it man. That is the only kind of Republican who can prevail in a country where changing demographics have made winning national office no easy task for the GOP.
The third opportunity turns on confidence. Romney’s success in Denver has given his campaign the maneuvering room to do something it has been scared to do until now: move back to the political center. This was already happening before the debate—Romney quietly took more-moderate positions on taxes and deficit reduction in September—but it has continued since, mostly in an effort to win the white college-educated female voters Romney badly needs. He can now embrace his naturally more centrist side without fear of reprisal from the GOP’s conservative base. After looking defeat in the eye throughout September, the party’s movement-conservative warlords have decided, all things being equal, it’s a lot more fun to win.
We know how the Obama team is going to react to this. It will do what all campaigns do when staring into an abyss of plunging polls: it will try to fight off panic by overcompensating. Just when Romney is going to accentuate the positive, Obama’s guys in Chicago are likely to break out the ugly sticks and double down on their negative-ad strategy. Therein lies Romney’s greatest opportunity: as Obama goes small and negative, Romney can best him by ramping up his big positive message of economic repair and renewal. The attacks that worked so well for the Obama campaign over the summer won’t ring as true now to the millions of people who saw the debate. Obama’s biggest weakness is that the only vision his campaign is offering is an endless tirade of what’s wrong with Romney. That message, Big Bird ads and all, looks smaller than ever, and it’s no longer enough to save the President.
For Romney, there is a potential precedent for all this. In 2002 he turned around a losing race for governor of Massachusetts at about this stage. That year, many imagined Mitt to be nothing more than the awkward loser badly beaten by Ted Kennedy in the 1994 Senate race. Local pundits, totally disconnected with voters, thought Mitt was too probusiness, too GOP and too Mormon to win the Bay State. But then Romney started agreeing to TV debates, where he made his case. Mitt surged, winning by five points. Romney is a horse who breaks late and runs hard. And late is now.
Murphy is a Republican consultant and was chief strategist of Romney’s 2002 campaign for governor of Massachusetts