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Fate of debater turns on a smirk, eye-roll

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WASHINGTON -- There may be only one impediment to President Barack Obama maintaining his small lead in the presidential U.S. election over the next week: arrogance.

For all the focus on the first debate between Obama and the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, in Denver on Oct. 3, history suggests these forums rarely are settled on substance; Romney and the president both are smart and cautious, not gaffe-prone. The very few game-changers in debates occur when a candidate makes a mistake or exposes an unattractive personality trait.

Obama and his top political advisers basically are contemptuous of their opponent, according to people who've spent time with the president in private. Four years ago, the Obama camp viewed John McCain as wrong for the times, but had personal respect for him.

It's different today. The president's campaign sees Romney as an out-of-touch stiff without core beliefs, willing to say or do anything for political advantage.

Fair or not, that's a derisive characterization.

It is the expression of that viewpoint, not any substantive shortcomings, that poses the greatest danger for the president in the debate. Even with a seasoned veteran, Jim Lehrer, serving as moderator, you can expect the two candidates to largely stick to their programmed views and responses. More compelling and revealing would be for the candidates to question each other in freewheeling exchanges. That is off limits.

The most seminal of the 10 presidential elections with televised debates was the first, John F. Kennedy versus Richard Nixon in 1960.

Since then, few have changed the predisposition of voters. In 2008, the Gallup polling organization examined surveys before and after all the debates. The conclusion was the forums had "a substantive impact on election outcomes" only a few times. The 2008 election wasn't one of them.

One that did matter was the 1980 exchange between Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter just before the election. It was less because of the way Reagan framed the issues -- though his line, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" remains a classic -- than it was his triumph on likability. Undecided voters saw him as sufficiently competent and they warmed to the idea of seeing him on their television screens for the next four years rather than the hectoring Carter.

The other was in 2000, when vice-president Al Gore had a lead going into the first debate. Most people who watched it, and those who heard it on the radio, gave the Democrat the clear substantive advantage over Texas governor George W. Bush.

Yet over the next few days, press coverage focused on the vice-president's interruptions, audible sighs and disdainful exasperation toward his rival, and largely ignored Bush's substantive mistakes. A downward slide in the polls began for Gore, who lost the presidency even though he won the popular vote.

In the debate this week and the ones to follow, it's this potential for showing Gore-type scorn for your opponent that is the chief danger for Obama. In the heat of campaigns, almost all politicians develop some hostility toward their foe. After the hard-fought 1960 campaign, Jack Kennedy said, "If I've done nothing for this country, I've saved them from Dick Nixon."

Yet most good politicians also possess a healthy, if begrudging, political respect for an opponent. Kennedy did in 1960. The president in this campaign doesn't even bother with begrudging. Look at the tape of an address he gave Sept. 21 in Woodbridge, Va., in which he sarcastically noted that "for some reason," Romney "got really excited" when he rewrote a speech to include a new attack on the president. It wasn't so much what Obama said; it was the contempt that he conveyed in his voice and expression.

Hubris caused him difficulty once before. In 2008, after a stunning victory in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, he was cruising to a win in the New Hampshire primary that might have sealed the nomination. In a debate days before the contest, while discussing the personal appeal of his opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama sniffed: "You're likable enough, Hillary." This condescension produced a backlash and a few days later she scored an upset in New Hampshire, setting the stage for a protracted nomination battle.

Team Obama is now in full spin mode, stressing how great a debater Romney is and warning that the president is a little rusty. Don't take it seriously; it's a game to lower expectations.

There are many reasons the president is ahead, including the marked deficiencies of his opponent and the deteriorating Republican brand as the party ideologically moved right.

There are also positive explanations, including the sense that Obama inherited an economic mess and made it better. And, no small matter, the president easily wins the likability contest; by huge margins, voters say they would prefer seeing him rather than Romney on their TV or computer screens for the next four years.

Romney can't change that; Obama could.

Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor

at Bloomberg News.

-- Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 2, 2012 A9

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