Analysis: This is What Mitt Romney Must do at the Debate to Turn This Race Around

PHOTO: A tv camera man works during a rehearsal at the Magness Arena at the University of Denver, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, where the first presidential debate between Obama and Republican presidential candidate Romney is scheduled for Oct. 3.Ed Andrieski/ AP
A television camera man works during a rehearsal at the Magness Arena at the University of Denver, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, where the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is scheduled for Oct. 3.

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.

Mitt Romney will likely follow one of these two paths. He can try to follow in Reagan's footsteps and summon all the argumentative acumen and charm his inner-circle insists he has. But it's not that simple. There's a fine line between genuine I-feel-your-pain charisma and blatant fakery. One joke too many, one "ha" too loud in his usual laughter staccato, and Romney could end up with a crushing defeat, becoming the conservative version of Michael Dukakis, that other Massachusetts governor who simply couldn't overcome his own awkwardness. In any case, Romney probably won't be able to count on a mistake by his opponent. As of late, Barack Obama has become a master at the art of managing the slimmest of leads. For a while now, Obama has had only one mission in mind: appear presidential, solemn and even a bit morose, at all times. It seems to be working. It's Mitt Romney who has to come out swinging. Will he land the blow he needs? Get ready to rumble!

León Krauze is the news anchor for Univision's KMEX 34 in Los Angeles.