Two weeks after his disastrous debate performance in Denver, President Barack Obama faces a fight for his political life. Obama will travel to Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, to face off against Gov. Mitt Romney in the second presidential debate of the 2012 election, a debate he badly needs to win. The town-hall style debate will give both candidates the opportunity to respond directly to the most pressing questions of the American people. This unique format forces President Obama and Gov. Romney to go face to face with each other in front of the watchful eyes of independent swing voters identified by the Gallup organization. Voter questions in this intimate interaction will run the gamut from foreign to domestic policy and the candidates will be moderated by the highly regarded Candy Crowley of CNN.
Gone is the 49.1% to 46% lead President Obama had in the RCP average heading into the first debate. Not only has Mitt Romney has closed the gap, he has emerged as the slight leader in the RCP average heading into Hofstra. More critically, Romney has made significant gains within some of the electorate's most important segments. The latest USA Today/Gallup Poll shows likely voters in swing states favor Romney 50% to 46%. Most amazingly, Romney has managed to completely erase an 18-point deficit among likely female voters in under a month. Not only has the former Governor of the Bay State completely closed the gender gap, he has expanded his lead among likely male voters to 8pts. With only 21 day remaining, the electoral math has never looked more glum for the President according to this article from RealClearPolitics. If Obama isn't able to stop the bleeding tonight, it is highly unlikely he will win another term.
After the first debate Mitt Romney catapulted himself into the lead due to a huge reduction in the gender gap that had been plaguing him since before the start of the election. On a whole, Gallup and other professional polling organizations have repeatedly shown that women don't start paying attention to the election as early as men. Thus they are widely believed to be much more susceptible to impressive debate performances and campaign advertisements. Gov. Romney's strongest moment since he began his quest for the White House nearly six years ago simply couldn't have come at a better time. A strong performance from his running mate Congressman Paul Ryan at the vice presidential debate only served to reassure women on the margin that the Romney-Ryan ticket provided a viable alternative to the current President and Vice President of the United States. In my view nothing has impressed women more than the intelligence and confidence displayed by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in their first debate performances. While Joe Biden did earn some accolades (and laughs) for his uber-aggressive performance in last Thursday's debate he left Obama with some serious explaining to do in four key areas.
1) Syria: It is now clear that the Obama Administration lied to the American people about the terrorist attack in Benghazi that resulted in the death of the US Ambassador to Syria and three other Americans. Barack Obama can not leave the stage tomorrow night without coming clean to the American people about what exactly he knew and when he knew it. If mistakes were made he needs to own them here. He can not afford to leave this question unanswered beyond tonight. Nobody is buying the "buck stops with me" act from Hillary. If Hillary Clinton was solely to blame then Obama ought to have received and accepted her immediate resignation. For more on Benghazi-gate read the following editorial from the Chicago Tribune.
2) Middle East: Biden's defense of US foreign policy in the Middle East was a disaster. He began by completely downplaying the actual threat posed by Iran. If Iran really is as far away from developing nuclear weapons as the Vice President said why are we imposing such harsh sanctions on them? Second, Vice President Biden failed to provide a coherent answer to Martha Raddatz question of why we don't leave Afghanistan immediately. The vice president was steadfast in his insistence that US troops would be removed by 2014 no matter what. "It does not depend for us... we are leaving in 2014. Period." If it "doesn't depend for us" is truly the case, why don't we leave now? What is the point of staying for two more years if we have already decided we will leave in 2014 even if all our hard fought gains end up being for naught? Romney will likely have an opportunity to expand on the nuances between his policy and the presidents in a more substantial way than Paul Ryan was able to.
3) Deficit/Taxes: Outside of being a pure populist ploy what solvency argument exists for increasing taxes on those who make over $250,000 a year? As Paul Ryan noted, "If you taxed everyone making $250,000 a year at 100% it would only run government for 98 days. If everyone who paid income tax last year doubled their income tax we'd still have a $300 billion deficit." On taxes and deficit issues, Obama will continue to have an extremely difficult time making a case for higher taxes to fund his higher spending because the facts of arithmetic and history are simply not on his side. His best chance to gain ground on the tax/deficit front is to come on strong attacking the lack of details in Romney's plan. Matt Miller of the Washington Post wrote an interesting editorial today explaining how Romney could lock the election up tonight if he decides to pursue the "Sister Souljah" option and reverse his stance on raising taxes on the rich.
4) Abortion: To regain ground with women, Obama must paint Romney as an extremist on abortion. Mitt Romney has moved dramatically to the right on this issue since his days as a pro-choice governor. The official policy of a Romney administration would be to oppose abortion except in instances of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. During the vice presidential debate I thought the most compelling question asked by Martha Raddatz was when she asked Paul Ryan, "If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected should those who believe abortion should remain legal be worried?" For most staunch pro-lifers this question is the ultimate mine field especially when your target swing voters happen to be women. Ryan's response was perhaps the best answer either candidate gave all night. "We don't think that unelected judges should make this decision. That people through their elected representatives and reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make that determination." This was both a reasonable and principled response that at once staunchly embraced the conservative critique of Roe vs Wade (that only a popularly elected Congress and not a unelected judiciary has the constitutional right to legalize abortion) and simultaneously kept alive the the possibility that women would ultimately maintain the right to choose. His answer was so impressively articulated that Biden's rambling rebuttal blew for the Democrats what should have been a guaranteed meter mover. It is completely up to Obama to make a forceful case for the practical advantages to women that are inherent within pro-choice regime.
Whether or not they agree with his stance on abortion, women respect Ryan's principled and impassioned defense of human life. Ryan's touching anecdote about how he and his wife came about nicknaming their first born daughter Liza 'bean' after an ultrasound showed their 7-week old fetus bore more resemblance to the legume family than either of them resonates a lot more with the average American mother than does Joe Biden's radical support or 'sympathy' for the government enforced abortions of China's One Child Policy.
Central to Obama's thesis will be presenting Mitt Romney as a politician lacking a moral compass who will do or say anything just to get elected. While Mitt clearly switched some of his longest standing policies during the Republican primary he is hardly the first politician to stray away from his true beliefs in order to get elected. Exhibit a) Barack Obama. Just as Barack Obama waited until he had been president for three years to reveal his true position on gay marriage (remember he was for gay marriage as an Illinois Senator before reversing his position during the 2008 Democratic Primary) I believe that the evidence is overwhelming that a President Romney would significantly moderate his positions on abortion and gay marriage upon becoming president. Now even though I personally believe it is foolish to decide presidential elections on social issues (I'll have a posting next week outlining my case against voting on them, so stay tuned) it would not be surprising for me to see Obama make an equally articulate case in defense of abortion or gay marriage that could sway independent voters back into his fold. Romney needs to simply keep hammering away at Obama's failures of the past four years. If Obama doesn't do a better job defending his record tonight than he did two weeks ago he might as well stop campaigning now, the race will be over.
If Obama shows any fight tonight the headlines will likely be lauding him for his dramatic comeback no matter the substance. If Obama doesn't make significant strides in the issues above, don't believe the hype, he didn't have a good night.