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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Before Candidates Debate, Their Lawyers Do


In just about two months, President Obama and Mitt Romney will meet in the first of three nationally televised debates, each of which will shape the final days of the presidential campaign.

But Robert F. Bauer and Benjamin L. Ginsberg have to face off first.

The two veteran lawyers are the chief negotiators for the campaigns. Mr. Bauer represents Mr. Obama; Mr. Ginsberg is the Romney lawyer. They have already begun the delicate, closed-door discussions about how the two candidates will debate each other.

Last Wednesday, the Commission on Presidential Debates made clear its preferences: one town hall-style debate and two sit-down conversations, the first on domestic policy and the other on foreign policy.

That will serve as the framework for the high-stakes events. Without making any final commitments, both campaigns have indicated they plan to participate. But the details are left to be hammered out by M r. Bauer and Mr. Ginsberg, both of whom have done this plenty of times before.

They will negotiate over how the candidates are presented during the debate. In 2008, the commission recommended two seated debates and one town hall-style format. Lawyers for Senator John McCain of Arizona and Mr. Obama agreed to do only one of the three debates seated at a table.

The lawyers will also clash privately over questions like what rules should govern the use of the debate footage. Some campaigns prefer that debate snippets be banned from campaign ads. Others are more willing to have good debate moments broadcast widely.

Commission members have generally gone along with what the candidates agree to, as long as the basic structure of the group's proposals are kept intact. Commission officials said last week that there is no reason to think that won't happen again this year.

But as they engage each other privately over the next severa l weeks, the campaign lawyers will be looking to the strengths and weaknesses of their candidates as the seek to gain an advantage.

Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama have never faced each other before. But both are experienced on the debate stage. Here are some of the strengths and weaknesses that each man brings:


The president's strengths in debates were on display throughout the primaries and general election in 2008. He is often eloquent under pressure, answering complex questions without stumbling or seeming nervous.

In debates against Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama often seemed confident of his mastery of the subjects thrown at him. Now, after three and a half years in the White House, Mr. Obama is likely to be even more sure of himself.

But Mr. Obama has some weaknesses, too. Chief among them: he tends to be long-winded, getting bogged down in a kind of professorial explanation when his advisers would rather he could fit his answer on a bumper sticker.

(In one infamous answer at a health care town hall meeting in 2010, Mr. Obama was asked whether it was wise to add more taxes in his health care bill. His answer took 2,500 words and 17 long, rambling minutes.)

Mr. Obama is not immune to the kind of gaffes that present opportunities to his rivals. His remark at a news conference that the “private sector is doing fine” and his remarks at a campaign event that small business owners “didn't build that” are prime examples.

And Mr. Obama has had testy moments in debates. When Hillary Clinton was asked in a debate whether she was likable, Mr. Obama offered “You're likable enough, Hillary, no doubt about it.”

Finally, while Mr. Romney has slogged through a long primary debate season, Mr. Obama has not faced off this way in four years.


Mr. Romney has proved himself to be aggressive, knowledgeable and well briefed during the many Republican primary de bates he participated in during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

Especially during the more recent campaign, Mr. Romney often found himself the target of attacks from Republican rivals who were eager to slow down his march to the party's nomination. He was often cool under the pressure of those attacks.

When Newt Gingrich attacked Mr. Romney's immigration policies, at a CNN debate in Florida, Mr. Romney was ready, calling the Mr. Gingrich's radio ads “inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate.” And when Mr. Gingrich accused Mr. Romney of making money off Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Mr. Romney quickly pointed out that Mr. Gingrich owned stock in the mortgage firms.

But Mr. Romney can also get rattled during debates, as he did when Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, recalled stories about Mr. Romney's hiring of illegal workers to maintain his yard. Red-faced and flustered, Mr. Romney struggled to maintain his composure, putting his hand on Mr. Perry's sh oulder in an attempt to get him to stop talking.

And like Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney has made his share of gaffes during debates. In an exchange with Mr. Perry about health care, Mr. Romney awkwardly offered to bet him $10,000. And his answer to a question of whether he would release his tax returns still echoes: “Maybe,” he quipped.

He is also known to be somewhat less comfortable and occasionally awkward in unscripted moments, which are especially likely in town hall-style debates.

Still, Mr. Romney has received some unexpected praise when it comes to his debating skills.

In an interview in June, Jim Messina, the campaign manager for Mr. Obama, offered what was perhaps a bit of pregame spin, calling Mr. Romney a “seriously underrated debater” and adding the Republican candidate always understood what he had to do in the debates.

“When it was to go out and finish Rick Perry, he did it. When it was to hold the lead in New Hampshire, he did it,” Mr. Messina said. “And he is a great debater. Someone who used to work with him said to me, and I think it's right, he was the guy that you took in at the end to seal the deal, because he knew how to do it.”