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Why Romney dominates debates

By Todd Graham, Special to CNN
updated 6:00 AM EST, Mon January 9, 2012
Todd Graham says that Mitt Romney, third from left, has mastered the art of taking a punch and then hitting back.
Todd Graham says that Mitt Romney, third from left, has mastered the art of taking a punch and then hitting back.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Todd Graham: Debating is tricky when you're the target of attacks
  • He says the key is to defend yourself, then use the issue to go on offense
  • Romney turned defensive positions into arguments for his candidacy, Graham says
  • Graham: Rival candidates' attacks on Romney soon ended

Editor's note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has coached his teams to national championships and has been honored with the Ross K. Smith National Debate Coach of the Year award. Graham has analyzed presidential debates for five elections.

(CNN) -- After watching two Republican presidential debates in less than 12 hours, I was thinking about how I coach my debate teams when debating the same opponents in a very short period of time. My main advice: Correct your errors without overdoing it.

I'll be blunt: There was a lot of coaching that needed to be done in the past 12 hours. The front-runner, Mitt Romney had a great first debate, and his opponents were underprepared. Why was Romney so good in the first debate? He knows how to handle attacks better than his opponents.

The verbal aggressiveness stepped up in these two debates because money is flowing and advertising is flying. The attack ads against the front-runners (I'll focus on the three top vote-getters in Iowa) are now topics in the debates. This places those being attacked on the defensive, which requires a different debating style from what most of the candidates are accustomed to, and it showed.

Todd Graham
Todd Graham

There is a simple debating strategy when answering attacks: "Backward-step-pivot-forward." First, put up a robust defense -- defend your positions thoroughly (backward-step). And second, figure out how to turn your potential weakness into strength. In other words, start with defense and then attempt to make that same issue part of your offense (pivot-forward).

Who accomplished that in the first debate? Mitt Romney. He is especially good at the "pivot-forward" part of this formula. On the topic of jobs and the private sector, Romney was attacked in the debate on two counts. First, rivals said being a "manager" is not the same as being the commander in chief and running a country. However, Romney answered by stating that business leaders are not just managers. They are leaders. (Notice the pivot?)

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Romney redefined the debate and then reminded everyone that our president needs to be a good leader, and being a business leader is similar to being president, especially when dealing with the economy. Once he redefined the term from manager to leader, it was all offense from there.

Romney goes from defense to offense better than anyone on that stage. The next attack was that the investment firm he ran downsized and broke up companies. Romney said that sometimes investments don't work and he learned from that. It "pained" him to downsize in order to make a company more successful (beginning the pivot-forward) and he asserted that he helped create over 100,000 jobs.

Romney finished by reminding the audience that if you want to create jobs as president, it would help if you had actual experience in the private sector doing just that -- creating jobs. Plus he got the bonus of being able to name companies that everyone has heard of, like Staples and Sports Authority. That is such sweet debating. Backward-step-pivot-forward.

Contrast that with Rick Santorum. He was attacked for the first time in these debates, and while his defense was fine, he remained on defense for the entire topic. Santorum was continually defending against Ron Paul's attacks that he was a big-spending, big-government insider. He was unable to make the pivot and turn this into anything potentially positive, keeping him off topic and off message.

Ron Paul also did not defend well against a particularly sharp criticism in the second debate, when Santorum said that Paul never passed any legislation of any importance and has no track record. His main criticism of Paul was that Paul cannot accomplish any of his agenda that Republicans might favor because Paul has been unsuccessful working with anyone to get anything done while he has been in Congress.

However, as commander in chief, Paul would be able to do exactly what Republicans do not want done (such as pulling troops out overseas). Paul's defense was that he has the support of the American people, and that if he did not work well with Congress, it would be because Congress is out of touch. But this defensive answer did not address Paul's main perceived weakness during this primary season: getting more Republicans to vote for him.

I began this analysis by saying that Romney's opponents needed some coaching for the second debate. At the beginning of the debate, it looked as though everyone had taken advice to be more aggressive toward Romney. There was a unified focus by Santorum, Paul, and Newt Gingrich to hammer away at Romney and not let him off the hook.

For a while, it was effective (especially on Romney being a career politician), and I thought Romney would be in real trouble. Remember, this was Romney's best point in the first debate (his private sector leadership) and the other candidates were not going to let him score on that point again.

But then they lost steam. After the first series of questions, the challenges to Romney disappeared. Why? Either the other candidates stopped the direct attacks because they were worried about overcorrecting, appearing rude, and alienating voters (Gingrich came close when he told Romney to "drop the pious baloney") -- or in the heat of the moment, they forgot their coaching once the second debate was under way (which I can assure you from experience happens way too often).

In either case, after two grueling debates, because of good debating by Romney and sometimes poor debating by his rivals, the former Massachusetts governor has probably only solidified his position with potential Republican voters.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.

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