The upcoming debate — will both candidates play it safe?

I had hoped that by the time of the first debate, Mitt Romney would have a lead over President Obama or, at least, that the race would be tied. In either scenario, the pressure would be on Obama, enhancing the possibility that he might become testy.

Instead, Obama appears to have a small lead nationally and perhaps a somewhat larger one in key states like Florida and Ohio. Assuming that this is how both candidates see the state of play, what does it mean for Wednesday’s debate?

For Obama, the course seems clear: play it safe and try to run out the clock. Don’t try for kill; leave that to the endless attack ads that have been weakening Romney in battleground states for months.

For Romney too, a play-it-safe strategy, though ultimately unwise, may be tempting. That’s because the challenger to an incumbent president typically “wins” if he doesn’t lose his first debate with the president. A draw makes the challenger appear to be as formidable as the president, thus undercutting a major advantage possessed by the incumbent — his presumed formidability.

Accordingly, Romney can reasonably believe that a draw would produce the small bounce meeded to pull even with Obama in the polls. Being even with Obama a month before the election wouldn’t be a bad position for Romney.

The temptation to play it safe is compounded by the pressure of the debate. One major gaffe can change the course of the race, and Romney can ill-afford to have the race turn further against him. Moreover, the MSM is prepared to spin innocuous Romney statements into minor gaffes and minor gaffes into major ones. Caution, then, would seem to be in order.

Nonetheless, I believe it would be mistake for Romney to play it safe. Unlike with a typical challenger, the doubts harbored by the electorate about Romney don’t pertain to formidability. Most voters probably believe that Romney has enough experience, smarts, and presence to occupy the White House. But they doubt whether he has the program, and the empathy with the middle class, that would make him an improvement over Obama.

Romney is unlikely to overcome these doubts by playing it safe. Even if he receives a small bounce from a draw in the first debate, it would be unlikely to hold.

Romney needs to change the dynamic of the race, albeit not dramatically. To accomplish this, he should play to win on Wednesday. I’ll try to explain what this entails in another post.

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