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Debate coach: Obama, heat up; Romney, stay cool

By Todd Graham, Special to CNN
October 5, 2012 -- Updated 0759 GMT (1559 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Todd Graham: Romney played to his strengths, Obama to his weaknesses in debate
  • He says Romney aced keeping "smooth" from turning "slick"
  • Obama's lack of passion kept him from connecting with voters; he missed chances to hit back
  • Graham: Obama needs to heat up, pin Romney down; Romney must keep aggression in check

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) -- Wednesday night's debate showcased a Mitt Romney resisting his worst debating weaknesses and playing solidly to his strengths. Barack Obama? This time, he couldn't overcome a weakness he has shown before, a tendency to distance himself from the audience, and this kept him from connecting and making a good showing.

But both have a track record of debates showcasing their strengths and weaknesses, and they are both good debaters. This is only the first of three performances. Many of their old habits emerged again, both good and bad. They will need to study their take-home lessons.

Todd Graham
Todd Graham

Let's begin with Romney.

Three of of Romney's debating strengths are being smooth and knowledgeable and having excellent first-line answers to questions. Wednesday night?

Opinion: Romney was hungry, Obama was flat

Check. Check. And check.

Watch the replay of the debate
Did you miss the first presidential debate? You can watch the full event online on CNN.com.

Listen, Mitt Romney can handle these debates. He was strong in all areas Wednesday night. And y'all shouldn't be surprised that he performed so well. For him to falter, the moderator is going to have to do a much better job than Jim Lehrer. Poor, steamrolled Jim Lehrer. Romney talked over him so often that I swear one time I saw Lehrer slumping behind his desk while he meekly gazed up at Romney and muttered, "Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler."

Romney has potential weaknesses: This smoothness has sometimes gotten in his way, which is how he got the "Slick Mitt" moniker. But he corrected the potential error and instead had a solid, conversational manner in the debate. He was believable.

Romney's other potential weakness is where he shined the most. In the Republican primaries, Romney wasn't a great debater when he was trailing in the polls. But not Wednesday night. He debated to win instead of "not to lose" (which is what Obama did). Romney put Obama on the defensive and kept him there all night defending his policies.

Romney stuck to his theme of too much government overstretch during the Obama administration, whether on energy subsidies, health care, taxes or increasing the deficit. He kept the debate on the economy and jobs while flatly stating that it was overreach of federal government power that was what has inhibited our economy from recovering. And he made the point well.

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As for Obama, one strength is that he is solid at picking a theme and sticking with it. Wednesday night was no different. But what a difference four years makes. Against John McCain in 2008, Obama focused on the economy as his theme and hammered away at George W. Bush and McCain. This time, Obama clearly presented his theme. The problem was that the new premise lacked bite. What was it? That Romney has no specific plan.

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Obama mentioned this time and time again: taxes, deficit reduction, entitlements, regulations to Wall Street and health care. Romney has not specified the details of how he will govern in all these important areas. The problem was that Obama needed to couple that theme with something else. Just stating it over and over is hardly a scathing indictment. And it failed to put Romney on the defensive.

Reasoning is another strength Obama has shown in previous debates, but he was unable to use it in any significant way. Near the beginning of the debate, he mentioned that arithmetic proved Romney's plans unworkable. While I thought this was an excellent point, it should have been much more forceful.

Which brings us to Obama's weaknesses: I wrote two days ago that his detachment was one weakness, that he can appear dispassionate and distancing to the audience. Unfortunately for the president, he didn't correct this. In fact, it was worse. Indeed, this was probably his poorest showing at trying to connect with the American people.

Being emotionless can work either for or against you. For Obama, with a troubled economy, it works against the president. If our economy isn't fully recovered and we're in hard times, our president should at least show more empathy. Offer strong examples to show that he understands. Couple that with Obama's failure to tie Romney to anything related to the famous 47% comment, and I'd call it a glaring error in the debate.

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You know it's bad when at the end of the debate, uber-wealthy Mitt Romney seems like he cares more about the middle class and even the lower class than the sitting Democratic president of the United States.

Both candidates get almost two weeks off before their next debate. Here's what they each need to do in the meantime in their preparation.

Obama needs to find a much more effective way to pin Romney down to a specific policy. Although he is correct that some of Romney's numbers simply don't add up, Obama must do a better job of wrestling the details out of him. He simply has to put Romney on the defensive more often and provide arguments (and passion) that will resonate with voters. He can't let opportunities slip by to tie Romney to the 47% comment or even to the old policies of George W.Bush.

This will be no easy task, since Romney was able to fend off most criticisms with ease in his many Republican primary debates. Obama will need to stick to one subject over a series of exchanges. If he doesn't, Romney will be like Teflon, and nothing Obama says will stick to him in these debates.

And the president should utilize the backward-step-pivot-forward technique as often as possible. Since Romney will continue to put him on the defensive (and this is guaranteed), Obama must turn potential flaws into strengths. It's easy enough to predict Romney's attacks. Now, the president must figure out rhetorically how to turn those criticisms into benefits.

Opinion: Romney wasn't stellar, but Obama fell short

And for goodness sake, Obama, show more energy and passion. Speak with conviction.

For Romney: Steady as she goes. He needs to keep debating precisely like Wednesday night. It wasn't a fluke, and he can prove it. Romney was assertive (compared with Obama's passivity). And it worked.

But there's a fine line between assertiveness and aggression. Romney was assertive in this debate without being aggressive. If he decides that his bullying technique of the moderator was effective (it worked Wednesday night, but I wouldn't push my luck if I were him), then he risks alienating voters.

The same is true with his demeanor toward the president. Romney can lose more votes than he can gain in future debates if he comes across as rude or mean, an impression many had of McCain four years ago. He must stay on the offense. But don't overdo it.

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

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