Mitt Romney embraces retail politics as town hall debate approaches

Mitt Romney embraces retail politics as town hall debate approaches

After weeks of confined and controlled campaign stops, Mitt Romney has suddenly become a candidate eager to mix it up with voters in impromptu settings.

The transformation has been fueled by two factors, Republican sources say. The first is the momentum that the Romney campaign feels coming off a strong debate performance on Wednesday night, resulting in the type of adoring crowds needed to provide a soft landing for a candidate who is often stiff and awkward in such settings.

The second is a plan to get Romney better prepared for the next presidential debate, which will put him and President Barack Obama in a town hall format.

In the days since the first debate, Romney has held town-hall style calls, visited local restaurants and stopped by an elementary school. His schedule, as culled from the pool reports, has been as follows:

October 4

Romney made an impromptu stop at the Colorado CPAC meeting for a short talk with attendees. It hadn’t been on his schedule. After flying to the Shenandoah Valley, he mingled with about 20 “well-wishers,” before holding a tele-town hall in Iowa.

October 5

Romney held a “closed-door roundtable with laid-off coal workers and their wives.” Later, he did a tele-town hall meeting with voters in Ohio. Late at night he made an unscheduled stop at a well-known Cuban restaurant in Tampa, Fla., where he went table-to-table chatting up patrons and the waitstaff.

October 6

Romney held a tele-townhall with voters in Virginia.

October 7

Romney visited a local fish and chips restaurant in Port St. Lucie, Fla. with his wife, Ann, during which he humorously got a piece of napkin stuck to his face and allowed the staffer to wipe it off. He left to a cheering throng of supporters waiting in the street.

October 8

Romney participated in a roundtable discussion with retired generals following his latest foreign policy speech. After a short motorcade ride he stopped at an elementary school, where he shook hands and played around with a bunch of the students.

The style and pace of Romney’s recent schedule are a dramatic departure from what he had been doing in the weeks leading up to the debate. During the first 20 days of September, for instance, Romney held just 13 campaign events and 13 fundraisers and made six impromptu campaign stops.

Democrats, in assessing the Republican nominee’s calendar, suggested that he was using the campaign trail as a trial run for his next showdown with the president.

“Don’t you assume that [the retail politics] is debate prep in itself, given that [the] next debate is interactive town hall format?” asked one top Democratic official.

The Huffington Post posed that question to a well-connected Republican operative.

“I think that’s true,” the operative replied. “The other thing I’d note is that if you look at that last debate, the president did not give an actual anecdote about a human until the debate was practically over. Doing these type of events provides you with those anecdotes to use.” Huffington Post


The Republican candidate may have performed well in the first debate, but the audience-participation variable in the town hall may fluster the improvisation-shy candidate.

Next week’s will be a “town hall”-style debate, and that format plays right into Romney’s weaknesses. The town hall debate will be challenging for Romney for two reasons, both of which have to do with the fact that it will feature not journalists or a moderator asking questions, but ordinary people.

Instead of standing behind a podium, [in a town hall debate] the candidates perch on stools, then get up and walk around as they answer questions. Unlike in some similar debates during the primaries, the assembled undecided voters are close to them, close enough that camera shots will contain both the candidate and the voter he’s speaking to. That creates a much more personal dynamic than the quasi-town hall debates that took place during the primaries, which featured people sitting far away in the audience of a theater and the candidates on stage. You can’t dodge a voter’s question or interrupt them, and you’ll be judged in no small part on whether you seem to have persuaded that one individual. This dynamic upended Bush in 1992; the question about the national debt was one he obviously hadn’t prepared for, but Clinton understood intuitively how to handle.

And that is what makes the town hall debate a threat to Mitt Romney: it’s unpredictable, both in what will be discussed and how it will be discussed.

Voters in town hall debates have often posed questions in terms of their own lives-and Romney will have to show that he cares not just about “the middle class” or “the 100 percent,” but about that specific individual he’s looking at. And as we know, it’s when he interacts with voters that Romney is prone to looking awkward and uncomfortable and saying things that come back to haunt him.

There are some things we can confidently predict about the town hall debate. Obama will almost certainly arrive more awake and aggressive than he was in the first debate. When Romney gets a question he has anticipated, he will deliver a confident, well-rehearsed response. But it’s the unpredictable moment-the oddly phrased question, the out-of-left-field topic, the voter’s personal story-that will likely define the debate. And that could be Romney’s real test.

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