The New Hampshire Debate: Mitt Romney’s First Big Test

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Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney walks from the stage after speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, June 3, 2011.

If Mitt Romney has his way, Monday night’s Republican primary debate in New Hampshire will be all about Barack Obama. If Mitt Romney’s Republican rivals have their way, Monday night’s debate will be all about Mitt Romney. Herein lies the danger, and the opportunity, for Mitt Romney, who has emerged as expected as the early frontrunner in the race for the nomination. No one enters the first real debate in as good a position, or with more to lose.Romney has crafted a campaign strategy that bypasses the question of whether he is the person conservatives can trust in the White House. In 2008, Romney spent months and millions of dollars trying to sell himself to the GOP base. He failed. This time around, he is drawing up a campaign where the candidate is basically absent, intentionally. “Right now, your greatest enemy is overexposure,” Romney recently told Piers Morgan on CNN. “People get tired of seeing the same person day in and day out.” By that, Romney means to say that he knows he is not his own best salesman. He leads in the polls, will lead in the fundraising, and he has the look and resume of someone who could be President. His only real message right now is that he is the guy who knows how to beat Obama. He has a story and he is sticking to it.

If you take a look at the web video his campaign released today, the Romney general election message appears far more refined than his rivals. It is a September 2012 ad, dropped at the start of primary season, attacking Obama for his “bumps in the road” comment on the economy, in much the same way that Obama attacked John McCain for saying “the fundamentals of the economy are sound.” (That Obama’s message team allowed him to fall into this trap shows that experience does not always matter.) The scene draws to mind the dust bowl. The American faces represent the general election demographic, not the Republican primary: Almost half of the people who appear in the spot are Hispanic. This is the Romney message: Barack Obama is Herbert Hoover, out of touch, lacking empathy, incapable on the economy.

Mitt Romney, of course, makes no appearance. There is no need, since this campaign is not about the candidate, who is refraining from many public appearances, and so far refusing to do the bus tours, chicken dinners and church basement tours that he embraced with other-worldly enthusiasm in 2007. But even invisible candidates have to appear once in a while, which is why Romney’s rivals are likely to seize the moment in New Hampshire tonight.

This will not be the first time that Romney finds himself as the unpopular kid on a debate stage. For much of 2007, Romney withstood the slings and arrows of his rivals–McCain, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson–who not only wanted to beat Romney, but also broadcast their personal dislike for him on stage. (At one debate, McCain didn’t even bother to shake Romney’s hand.) This time around, much of the same can be expected. On Sunday, Tim Pawlenty debuted a neologism to help his case: “President Obama said that he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare.” Rick Santorum has been referring to Romney’s health care experiment as akin to socialized medicine.

So what does Romney have to fear? Not really the critiques on health care, which are what they are, and which the Romney campaign hopes to turn into a way of rebutting claims that he is a flip flopper with no core values. If the nomination battle turns on health care, Romney loses, but Romney’s strategists do not expect the battle to turn on health care with 9% unemployment. What Romney must fear is doing anything that weakens his case that he is the strongest person to take on Obama. If he gets ruffled, if he misspeaks, if he snaps at one of his opponents, then he will have reestablished himself at the center of his campaign, and thereby stepped on his own strategy. Romney’s job tonight is to deliver his message, challenge Obama and get out of his own way. He is already running as if he’s in the general election, and unless his rivals can knock him off his game, the Romney strategy has a good chance of getting him there.