If I were an adviser to Mitt Romney going into tonight’s presidential debate in Denver, I would tell him that his principal objective should not be trying to get the better of Barack Obama on matters of policy or scoring more zingers and one-liners.
Rather, I would tell him that he has to make himself more likable. I would tell him that his personality — or at least the public perception of it — is what’s beating him in this race.
Yes, such advice runs counter to the lust for political bloodsport among certain elements of the Republican base. Most of those folks want Romney to go after Obama hammer and tongs. But that’s a recipe for irreversible disaster.
The unavoidable fact of the matter is that Obama is much better liked than Romney among the American people. Every poll, even those commissioned by Fox News, shows the president far ahead of his Republican challenger on the matter of personality. People who truly hate Obama can’t understand it, but it is what it is.
Romney’s likability problem was only aggravated by his 47-percent rhetoric. As Republican strategist Alex Castellanos put it the other day: “The only thing in politics that is worse than voters deciding they don’t like you is when voters decide you don’t like them.”
Conservative historian Niall Ferguson, who decidedly is no fan of Obama, says this:
“The economy isn’t the No. 1 issue, despite what people say…True, when asked to rank issues, voters mostly put the economy at the top of the list. And yet when asked to make a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, their choices don’t seem to be economically based.
“Many people subscribe to the view that Romney just isn’t likable. They can more readily imagine having a beer or shooting hoops with Obama.”
Romney’s only hope of achieving some improvement on the likability score is to show greater respect for Americans — all 100 percent of them. He has to somehow make amends for saying that 47 percent of the electorate are moochers who consider themselves victims and won’t take responsibility for their lives.
You may think Romney was right about all of that. But he can’t win the election if that’s what lots of Americans think he feels about them.
None of this is to say that Romney can miraculously transform his personality in tonight’s debate. But he can at least take a big step in that direction. If he doesn’t — and if Obama doesn’t commit some major gaffe – Romney will lose this debate and most likely lose the election as well.