What Romney Must Do at the Debates: Establishing Competence, Compassion and Connection Can Start the 'Romney Comeback' Narrative

On the road to recovery, one must always accept reality and the truth as it exists. Not in what we want it to be, but in what it is. Mitt Romney is behind - nationally and in nearly every key battleground state. This race today is not within the margin of error, no matter how many attacks his supporters wage on the integrity of public polling.

It would be much better for the Romney campaign to admit this and then, once out of denial, to do the necessary course corrections. I suggest that right now, Romney is down nationally by about five points. And in critical states from Florida to Virginia to Ohio, he is probably down by roughly the same margin.

The good news for Romney is that the equilibrium of this race is probably a two- or three-point margin - both nationally and in the key battleground states. This is likely where this race will return after the first debate, if Romney performs reasonably well.

In preparing for the debates, Romney - along with President Obama - needs to remember that judgments on winning or losing are much more stylistic than substantive. The public isn't interested in getting more detailed policy specifics, but in getting pointers about the people onstage. When debates have moved numbers in the past, it has been result of impressions, mannerisms and style. (As an aside, Obama will be judged a loser if he comes across as aloof, arrogant, impatient or irritable.)

Romney should remember that winning - or just doing well - requires understanding that voters will see these debates through a prism of the letter "C." It will be a comparison and contrast of the candidates on three parameters: Competence, Compassion and Connection. Romney has suffered recently because of a perceived lack of these qualities, and that explains why he is behind.

His too-quick-on-the draw accusation related to the Libya tragedy allowed some voters to question his competence. The "47 percent" video - along with an existing narrative of him not understanding average voters' concerns - has made him look less than compassionate. And his campaigning and manner too often have made him seem disconnected from the public.

At this first debate (and the two subsequent debates), Romney needs to rebuild all three of these, on issues from the economy to foreign policy, and reestablish his presence in this race. This is a tall order, but doable. If he can accomplish this, he will close the gap with Obama - then, the media will write the Romney comeback story for at least a few days. He needs that oxygen, if he has any chance of winning at this point. This race is still winnable for him because of voters' dissatisfaction with the country's direction, but the window is closing soon. The presidential race has gone from a probable victory for Romney a few months ago to a possible one today, but it is slowly moving to unlikely.

If Romney wants to win, this is the moment to focus on the three Cs. Otherwise, he'll need to focus on another "C" on Nov. 6 - concession.