The upcoming debate — no more Mr. Nice Guy

Mitt Romney has several decisions to make about how to approach tomorrow’s debate. I discussed one of them yesterday, arguing that he should not approach the debate cautiously, even though a break-even performance would probably be enough to improve his standing.

Another decision is the one Romney faced during the Republican Convention — whether to focus on increasing his likeability or on attacking his opponent. In his speech to the Convention, he opted for the former.

Here is how Democratic pollster Celinda Lake tried to frame the decision Romney faces:

For Romney, it’s a double goal that he has: He’s got to get that likability up, particularly among women. And he’s got to draw a sharp contrast on what he’d do on the economy. That’s very difficult to do simultaneously. It’s hard to maintain likability when you’re being an attack dog.

This isn’t exactly a false choice, but it should be an easy one for Romney to make. For Romney, the “likeability” problem for boils down to the fact that people don’t believe he has deep personal sympathy for the middle class. Based on my extensive reading about, and few personal encounters with, the candidate I agree that his personal sympathy is not triggered by class status. Romney has deep sympathy with people he finds sympathetic — typically those who face hardship by working hard to overcome it — and only the normal, very modest amount of sympathy for those who expect to receive it based on their status rather than their personal story.

In any event, Romney’s chances on Wednesday of changing perceptions about his level of sympathy with the middle class are practically nil. A convention speech held more promise. A debate, however, is an argument, not a therapy session.

But here’s what Romney can accomplish through a debate. He can persuade undecided middle class voters that President Obama’s policies are largely to blame for their woes and that Romney’s policies will serve them better. In other words, he can win the argument. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.”

Romney can win the argument and still be civil towards Obama. But he won’t win the argument if he’s burdened by concerns about likeability.

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