I once heard debating defined as "the most elegant contact sport in the world". If that's true – and I believe it is – Mitt Romney needs to come out swinging in these last throes of his long bout with Barack Obama. The first presidential debate in Denver could be the beginning of the end for Romney, who has lost the campaign's messaging war by allowing his opponent to define him in the voters' minds. The election has not been about Obama's shortcomings as president; it has been about Romney's moral failings. By allowing Obama to set not only the tone but the agenda for almost the entire campaign, Romney has become a figure similar to John Kerry in 2004: a man struggling to convince an entire country that he's not what his opponent insists he is.
If he is to reverse the trend, Romney must impress and convince during the debates. The question is how.
The best case scenario for the GOP's candidate is to try to be like – who else?- Ronald Reagan. In 1980, Reagan arrived at the presidential debates battling two dangerous and seemingly insurmountable "image problems": the Democrats had insisted that Reagan was too conservative and too old for the presidency. Before the omnipresent 24-hour news cycle, the debates were Reagan's only chance to counter the prevailing narrative. He did so, first, by showing up—Carter's absence in the first debate is rightly considered a colossal mistake. After using the first debate to allay fears of his supposed radicalism, Reagan used the second one to convince voters of his grasp of current affairs, his sharpness and his sense of humor. Reagan, who was 13 years older than Carter, was deemed to be more empathetic and even more youthful. By the time the election came around, the idea that Reagan was some old, conservative grandfather was only a distant memory.
Of course, the worst-case scenario for Mitt Romney is to end up emulating Michael Dukakis. In 1988, Dukakis had an "image problem" of his own. Republicans had tried to brand him as the quintessential Massachusetts social-liberal. By October, Dukakis was struggling to present himself as an appealing, affable candidate. Dismissed as "cold" and "aloof", Dukakis needed the debates to show a different side of him. Instead, Dukakis managed the exact opposite, especially in the second debate. After Bernard Shaw's famous "rape" question, Dukakis imploded, essentially reaffirming, with his convoluted and cold answer, his image as a man disconnected from emotional and social reality. After that, in what was an eminently winnable election for the Democratic party, Dukakis had no chance.