Slugfest: The Romney-Obama Debates

Credit: Alison Jackson

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by James Fallows and featured in The Atlantic. To read the complete article, check out others, sign up for free email alerts, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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This year’s presidential debates could have as decisive an effect on the election outcome as any since 1980, if not 1960. Mitt Romney brings formidable advantages to the contests—but he has one big weakness that President Obama can exploit.

By the fall of 1994, Edward Kennedy, then 62 years old, had spent more than half his life in the U.S. Senate. He had cruised to reelection five times after his only even slightly competitive race—the first one, which was a special election to fill the seat once held by his brother John­—nine months after he reached the constitutional minimum age of 30. But in 1994, Mitt Romney thought the time could be right to dethrone Kennedy. Romney was 47 years old and already rich from his years at Bain & Company and Bain Capital. The now-famous photo of him and other Bain Capital executives grinning as they clutched and bit wads of cash was 10 years in the past; under Romney as its CEO, Bain Capital had been a stunning success, beginning a 15-year run of returns five times greater than the overall stock market’s through that period. The year was shaping up as a very good one for Republicans. A Boston Globe poll in late September showed Kennedy barely in the lead over Romney, 48 percent to 46; another poll showed Romney ahead. A Newsday story was headlined “Kennedy in Fight of His Political Life.”

As it turned out, of course, Kennedy held on. Romney got 41 percent of the vote, which was more than any challenger before or after but still not even close to Kennedy’s 58 percent. Romney now looks back and says he knew he never had a chance and was running mainly because he felt a civic duty to stand up against “a man who I thought by virtue of the policies of the liberal welfare state had created a permanent underclass in America.” Romney put some $3 million of his own money into the race. He said of Kennedy at a Republican-primary debate early this year, “I was happy that he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me.”

But while the race was under way, Romney fought like a man trying hard to win. The Romney who took on Teddy Kennedy 18 years ago remains a highly useful guide to the candidate who will stand next to Barack Obama in the three debates scheduled this fall. Romney’s record then and in the years since suggests that if Obama is taking anything for granted about these encounters, he is making a mistake.

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To read the complete article and watch a video during which Fallows discusses clips that demonstrate Romney’s debating strengths and weaknesses, please click here.

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