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 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT