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How President Obama can win the first debate

By Hilary Rosen, Special to CNN
updated 9:16 PM EDT, Sat September 29, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hilary Rosen: It seems everyone else is getting credit for Obama being in the lead
  • Rosen: In fact, Obama's strategy is to show election as a choice between two directions
  • She says in the debate, Obama should frame every answer as a choice, not a defense
  • Rosen: Romney will try to annoy Obama, the president should stay nice

Editor's note: Hilary Rosen, a CNN contributor, is a Democratic political strategist and former chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America.

(CNN) -- Have you noticed lately that everyone else is getting credit for the president being in the lead except President Obama?

It was the cohesive Democratic message at the convention. It was President Clinton bringing it home. It was GOP challenger Mitt Romney being tone deaf about 47% of the American people. In short, according to the pundits, it has been everything but the president himself that's responsible for the momentum that his re-election has now.

In fact, it's been the fundamental strategy of the president and his campaign that has allowed these other issues to resonate so loudly with the American people. When the president successfully shifted this election as a choice between two leaders and two directions rather than a referendum on him and the state of the economy, everything else fell into a complementary narrative.

Hilary Rosen
Hilary Rosen

Yes, there was a good story to tell about the accomplishments of the last four years, but America needed to see the bigger picture.

So now when we learn Romney's tax rate hovers at 14%, or when he picks Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who wanted to kill Medicare as we know it, as his running mate, or when he can't decide if his Massachusetts health care plan is an example of his compassion or a noose around Obamacare, he falls into the trap of comparison every time. He may not have wanted those things to define his candidacy, but Obama is successfully making America realize that if we reject him, we would be choosing Romney.

Opinion: Fox's laughable case for Romney

So that is my first piece of advice for Obama in the first debate. Frame virtually every answer as a choice, not a defense. Romney is smart and a skilled debater, and he will try to stay vague and put the president on the defensive early. Obama must resist the temptation to lash back only with a spirited defense. Every issue presents a choice for the American people. And on an issue-by-issue basis, the people are mostly with the president.

My second piece of advice is for the president to share his best self as emblematic of what is best in America. Romney says that he only wants everyone to focus on jobs. But life isn't that simple or binary.

If moms are worried about paying for their reproductive health care or whether their rights are respected, it is hard to concentrate only on the economy. If immigrants are worried about being discriminated against or their families deported, it adds to the stress of their economic life. If gays and lesbians can't have their families recognized, it makes their search for meaningful work more complicated as they cobble benefits together. If college students are worrying about the stress of their student loans rather than studying as hard as they can, their chances of pulling themselves up are more limited.

In short, America succeeds when all of its people are valued, and we are all pulling in the same direction rather than refighting old fights or letting social issues divide us. That is not the world that Romney inhabits, but it is the reality for most Americans. Don't be afraid to talk about it.

Romney has everything at stake in this first debate. His campaign team and surrogates can't stop talking about it, in fact. The pressure will be great on him to perform. Therefore he is certain to say things that annoy the president.

Opinion: Why debates don't always make a difference

So my final piece of advice is most simple: Stay nice. No "you're likable enough" comments; no jokes about dogs on top of the car; no snarking about how rich Romney is; no patronizing lecturing when he has his facts wrong. Just stay nice.

One of the greatest gifts America has is a president who is kind and warm with a big smile and compassionate heart. That is the president who will win the first debate.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hilary Rosen.

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