Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why debate is crucial for Obama, too

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
updated 6:59 PM EDT, Wed October 3, 2012
As members of the media prepare their television sets, University of Denver students Zach Gonzales, left, and Dia Mohamed stand in for the nominees during a dress rehearsal for the presidential debate Tuesday, October 2, in Denver. President Obama and Mitt Romney will square off during the first of three debates on Wednesday night. As members of the media prepare their television sets, University of Denver students Zach Gonzales, left, and Dia Mohamed stand in for the nominees during a dress rehearsal for the presidential debate Tuesday, October 2, in Denver. President Obama and Mitt Romney will square off during the first of three debates on Wednesday night.
HIDE CAPTION
Preparing for first debate
Preparing for first debate
Preparing for first debate
Preparing for first debate
Preparing for first debate
Preparing for first debate
Preparing for first debate
Preparing for first debate
Preparing for first debate
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen: Debate may represent Romney's last big chance to turn around the race
  • He says the stakes are also sky-high for Obama, even if he wins election
  • Obama needs a big victory to claim broad support for his plans for second term, Gergen says

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- It is widely agreed that Wednesday night's presidential debate is crucial for Mitt Romney: This is almost assuredly his last chance to turn around the election. What is less obvious is that the stakes are sky-high for Barack Obama, too: This debate could have a powerful impact upon his ability to govern in a second term.

Join CNN.com for the presidential debates
Watch Wednesday's presidential debate and CNN's exclusive expert analysis starting at 7 p.m. ET on CNN TV, CNN.com and CNN's mobile apps. Become an analyst for your friends with our new online clip-and-share feature that lets you share your favorite debate moments on Facebook and Twitter.

Romney is dangerously close to blowing a campaign that many election models said he should easily win. Yes, three national polls published Monday -- including CNN -- showed the two candidates within three points of each other. But for Romney, the problem is that as the polls go up and down each week, there is one constant: As Real Clear Politics demonstrates in its averaging process, Obama stays ahead and has been for nearly a year. The news for the GOP from battleground states is even worse, especially in the Midwest.

Unless he wants to depend on a wing and a prayer, Romney is thus in the unenviable position that he has to shake up the dynamics of the race on Wednesday night. Translated, that means he has to score a convincing victory in the eyes of voters. Simply being as good as Obama won't cut it -- a tie goes to the leader.

How to watch, clip and share the debate

David Gergen
David Gergen

Can Romney pull off a debate victory? Of course -- umm, theoretically. As he proved in the GOP debates, he is quick on his feet, can throw a punch as well as counterpunch, and he looks presidential -- all assets on television. But his campaign has left him with so much ground to make up that it will be very hard: In the space of 90 minutes, he has to convince voters for the first time that he has a better plan for the economy, make the case that Obama doesn't and prove much more likable than ever before. And all the while, he will have to fend off jabs from Obama, who can draw from a rich trove of Romney mistakes in the past. So, yes, Romney can still win, but it will be darn hard. No wonder he has been practicing so much.

It would appear, then, that Obama can simply go for caution, choosing a clinch in the center of the ring over hard punches, and walking away with a tie. But on closer examination, Obama ought to be pressing for a victory, too.

Opinion: Debate coach -- Obama, Romney are top performers

In some polls over recent weeks, especially from key states, the president has now opened up a second possible path to re-election. For a long time, his campaign advisers have assumed that he would win but that his margin of victory would be narrow -- less than three points. Even now, his advisers -- even as they are quietly confident about the ultimate outcome -- are running scared, assuming the race will likely close significantly in the final weeks.

The power of the 'October Surprise'
Candidates' debate preparation
Candidates pressed for policy specifics
Big questions for both candidates

But it is becoming apparent there is another possibility: Contrary to much conventional wisdom, Obama may actually be able to bust open this race, sweeping almost every state he won four years ago and rolling up a victory margin of perhaps five points or more.

Opinion: Ten questions for Obama to answer

The difference between a big win and a small win for Obama is, to draw upon a famous Mark Twain phrase, almost the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Looking beyond November, what really matters to Obama is whether he can effectively govern in a second term. If he wins big, he can persuasively argue that the American people have spoken loudly and clearly, choosing his path into the future over Romney's. At minimum, he will claim a mandate in favor of higher taxes on the affluent, a strong safety net for those in trouble and a cautious approach toward reducing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security costs. Republicans will have a much harder time challenging his mandate if he wins big.

Moreover, a big Obama victory would keep the Senate safely in Democratic hands and -- less likely -- might put a few House seats in play. Obama campaign advisers have been building a powerful ground game for months; they have far more offices in battleground states than Romney. Their hope is that if they turn out enough voters, a rising tide will lift lots of boats downstream. Especially in the Senate, they entertain hopes that a Democratic candidate can come within three points of Obama. If he were to break beyond 53% in key states, that could elect a lot of Democrats.

Add together the possibility of a convincing mandate with congressional results that may be far better than expected a few months ago and what do you have: bingo, a resurgent Obama heading toward a second term. To some of his advisers, that would make it far more likely he could achieve a "grand bargain" on deficits, breaking open the deadlock now paralyzing Washington and holding back corporate investment.

Opinion: The mistakes candidates make in debates

In short, Obama has a great deal riding on Wednesday's debate, too. Members of his team may talk as if they have less at stake than their opponent, but in their hearts, they know that if Obama can put Romney away in their first debate, he could well have some lightning at his command in a second term.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT