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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sharpening the Message for the Final Push

In the closing days of the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama and Mitt Romney are finding sharper, punchier ways to communicate their basic arguments.

Bumper-sticker politics has been around forever. But it often takes presidential candidates a while to hone their closing arguments.

Listening to both men recently in the debates and on the stump has made it clear that their advisers have worked hard to distill the campaign themes and attacks into a single word or phrase. The idea? Make sure everyone can understand what the simple message is.

Here is a sample from each side:

The Democrats

¶ “Romnesia” - At a rally on Friday morning in Fairfax, Va., Mr. Obama found a way to encapsulate his campaign's attack on Mr. Romney's attempts to moderate some of his more conservative positions. He accused Mr. Romney of forgetting his previous positions because he has a case of “Romnesia.”

The president was not the first to come up w ith the word - it has been bouncing around on Twitter for weeks. But it was a big hit with the crowd at George Mason University, and it will most likely find its way into many of the president's rallies.

¶ “Malarkey” - Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. used the word several times during his debate with Representative Paul D. Ryan, Mr. Romney's running mate. He has continued to use it to attack the Republican ticket's veracity.

Campaigns can sometimes simply accuse their rivals of lying. But that can appear harsh to voters, especially in the waning days of a race, when people can tire of the negativity. A word like “malarkey” can seem like a more lighthearted way to say the same thing.

¶ “Sketchy Deal” - In his first debate with Mr. Romney, the president stumbled about for a concise way to question the Republicans' economic and tax plans. What came out was a long and rambling critique that for some was hard to follow and seemed defensive.

< p>In the second debate, Mr. Obama found his phrase. By calling Mr. Romney's tax and budget plans a “sketchy deal,” Mr. Obama condensed his argument into two words. Expect the president to continue repeating the term as he crosses the country.

¶ “Binders Full of Women” - During the second presidential debate, Mr. Romney's description of being handed “binders full of women” who were potential appointees when he was the governor of Massachusetts became an Internet sensation. But the president's team has used it in a serious way, as an easy catchphrase to signify his belief that Mr. Romney's policies would be bad for women.

The phrase gets huge applause at rallies and will no doubt remain in the Democrats' stump speeches in places where they think they can make gains among women.

The Republicans

¶ “Running on Fumes” - For the last week, Mr. Romney's campaign has been accusing the president of not having much of a second-term agenda. The idea is to highlight what Mr. Romney's organization believes is a backward-looking, defensive campaign by the president.

“Running on fumes” captures that sentiment and will most likely be repeated on the trail during the rallies ahead. The Republican campaign hopes people will be able to identify easily with the imagery of a White House that is out of ideas.

¶ “Last Four Years” - Several weeks ago, when Mr. Romney's campaign was down in the polls and struggling, his top advisers came up with a new formulation of Ronald Reagan's “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The adaptation: “We can't afford another four years like the last four years.”

Mr. Romney seems to like it. He used it during the first two debates, and he and Mr. Ryan regularly repeat it on the stump. It appears often in Republican advertisements and literature. That is not likely to change, as Mr. Romney's camp tries to persuade voters to make a change.

¶ “Hope Is Not a Strategy” - When it comes to foreign policy, Mr. Romney has accused the president of failing to achieve the grand vision he laid out in 2008. Speaking several weeks ago in Lexington, Va., Mr. Romney praised Mr. Obama's “hopes” for the Middle East, but said that “hope is not a strategy.”

The Republican campaign believes that wording nicely captures what it says is a feckless, ineffective foreign policy that has not achieved its goals. For a public that is more focused on domestic issues and less knowledgeable about national security, the phrase could help make Mr. Romney seem an acceptable commander in chief.

¶ “The Shrinking Campaign” - Mr. Romney and his allies have recently begun talking abut the “smallness” of the president's campaign. They say Mr. Obama's ads about Big Bird and catchy terms like “Romnesia” testify to a lack of big ideas.

On the stump, Mr. Romney has said his rival is reduced to “petty attacks and silly word games.” But the “shrinking campaign” is likely to be the way he talks about it in the last two weeks of the race.

Monday\'s Debate Puts Focus on Foreign Policy Clashes

When President Obama and Mitt Romney sit down Monday night for the last of their three debates, two things should be immediately evident: there should be no pacing the stage or candidates' getting into each other's space, and there should be no veering into arguments over taxes.

This debate is about how America deals with the world - and how it should.

If the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, has his way, it will be the most substantive of the debates. He has outlined several topics: America's role in the world, the continuing war in Afghanistan, managing the nuclear crisis with Iran and the resultant tensions with Israel, and how to deal with rise of China.

The most time, Mr. Schieffer has said, will be spent on the Arab uprisings, their aftermath and how the terrorist threat has changed since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. No doubt the two candidates will spar again, as they did in the second debate, about whether the Obama administration was ready for the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador, and three other Americans. Mr. Romney was widely judged to not have had his most effective critique ready, and this time, presumably, he will be out to correct that.

The early line is that this is an opportunity for Mr. Obama to shine, and to repair the damage from the first debate. (He was already telling jokes the other night, at a dinner in New York, about his frequent mention of Osama bin Laden's demise.)

But we can hope that it is a chance for both candidates to describe, at a level of detail they have not yet done, how they perceive the future of American power in the world. They view American power differently, a subject I try to grapple with at length in a piece in this Sunday's Review, “The Debatable World.”

But for now, here is a field guide to Monday's debate.

LIBYA AND BENGHAZI Both candidates will come ready fo r a fight on this topic, but the question is whether it is the right fight. Mr. Obama already admitted mistakes on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and promised to get to the bottom of them, but the White House has been less than transparent about what kind of warnings filtered up from the intelligence agencies before the attack on the consulate, and whether there was a way that American security forces could have arrived sooner, perhaps in time to save some of the American lives. No doubt the argument will focus on a narrower issue: why the administration stuck so long to its story that this was a protest against a film that turned into something worse, rather than a preplanned attack by insurgents. For Mr. Romney, the task is to show that the Benghazi attack was symptomatic of bigger failings in the Middle East, a road he started down in the last debate, but an argument he never completed.

IRAN With the revelation in The New York Times on Sunday reported by Hele ne Cooper and Mark Landler that the Obama administration has secretly agreed in principle to direct, bilateral talks after the election, the urgent question for the candidates is this: in a negotiation, what would you be willing to let Iran hold onto in return for a deal that gave the United States and Israel confidence that Tehran could not gain a nuclear weapons capability? It's a hard question for both men.

Mr. Romney has said he would not allow Iran to have any enrichment capability at all - something it is allowed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as long as it is abiding by the treaty's rules - a position that would kill any talks. But Mr. Obama does not want to say the obvious: that he is willing to allow Iran to hold onto some face-saving enrichment capability as long as it does not retain its stockpiles of medium-enriched fuel, which can be converted to bomb-grade. Also, look for answers to the question of whether the United States would back up Isra el if it decided to conduct a military strike against Iran. Mr. Romney wants to show that Mr. Obama has created “daylight” between the United States and Israel; Mr. Obama wants to demonstrate that while he has Israel's back, he is trying to protect the country from taking an action he considers unwise, at least at this stage.

CYBERWAR Mr. Obama cannot talk about “Olympic Games,” the covert program that the United States has conducted against Iran, with Israel's help, using a cyberweapon against another country for the first time in history. But do Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney consider cyberweapons a legitimate tool in America's arsenal, or too risky, since the United States is the most vulnerable country in the world? We have never heard either candidate answer the question.

AFGHANISTAN There was a time when Mr. Romney declared that America should not be negotiating with the Taliban, but that it should be killing all the Taliban. He stopped saying that after his aides suggested that it sounded like a prescription for endless war. Now both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama say they think that America should be out of Afghanistan by 2014, the internationally agreed deadline for the withdrawal of forces, though Mr. Romney has the caveat that he wants to hear from his generals first. (The generals thought that Mr. Obama's insistence on setting a clear deadline for withdrawal was a bad idea - as did Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and many others.) So what do we want to hear from the candidates?


For starters, if it looks as if Kabul could fall back into Taliban hands in a few years, do either of them think the United States should re-intervene? It would be nice to know if Mr. Obama agrees with his vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., that all American troops should be out by the end of 2014, since the White House plan calls for an “enduring presence” of 10,000 to 15,000 troops that would back up the weak Afghan security forces and keep an eye on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. (The remaining base would also be a place to launch drone strikes into Pakistan and Afghanistan, when necessary.) And for Mr. Romney, if he believes the pullout in Iraq was too hasty, and the pullout in Afghanistan risks making the same mistake, what kind of continuing presence would he have in mind?

THE ARAB UPRISINGS Afghanistan is already in America's rearview mirror, but the Arab uprisings are not. Mr. Romney says that the rise of Islamic governments is an Obama administration failure. The White House says that if you have free elections in Islamic nations, you cannot be surprised when the Muslim Brotherhood and the harder-line Salafists win control of the government. The question is how to deal with these governments: conditional aid, to ensure American values are respected? Trade restrictions? Gentle persuasion?

This would also be the area to understand when and why each man would advocate fut ure interventions. Mr. Obama joined in the Libya strike, which Mr. Romney thought was a mistake. But Mr. Obama has been hesitant to do much in Syria - a very different kind of conflict - while Mr. Romney says he would arm the rebels with heavy-duty antiaircraft and antitank weapons. Since the light weapons are already going into the wrong hands, how exactly would he find a way to overthrow Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad?

CHINA Perhaps the most important long-term subject of the debate. Mr. Romney promises a hard line, saying he would declare China as a currency manipulator from Day 1 of his presidency. But he has not said much about Day 2, or Year 2. This is the moment for each candidate to describe how he would counter China's growing claims in the South China Sea and other disputed territories, how he would handle trade tensions, and how he would manage a world in which the United States, for better or worse, is going to be reliant on Chinese investment in Americ an debt for years to come. And it is the moment for each to give his view of the leadership change under way in China, where three-quarters of the top political posts are about to change hands.

Bloomberg Raises \'Socialism\' Label in Discussing Warren

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has just started a new “super PAC,” did not reserve his strong words to President Obama and Mitt Romney during his 40-minute interview with The New York Times on Friday. Speaking at the uptown headquarters of his private foundation, he also discussed the Massachusetts Democrat running for the Senate, Elizabeth Warren, in the context of communism, his support for the man she is seeking to unseat, Senator Scott P. Brown, a Republican, and a range of other issues.

The Brown-Warren Race

“What I've tried to do is find liberal middle-of-the-road Republicans and Democrats. In the Senate, Scott Brown, who single-handedly stopped the right-to-carry bill. You can question whether he's too conservative. You can question, in my mind, whether she's God's gift to regulation, close the banks and get rid of corporate profits, and we'd all bring socialism back, or the U.S.S.R.”

“But the bottom line is Scott Brown single-handedly stood up when we needed him to stop the right to carry on campus and in the streets of our city and our state and our country. And I said to him ‘You do that, and I'm going to support you.' Now, I don't have to agree with him on a lot of other things, although he's certainly no crazy right-wing â€" he's just more conservative than I am â€" but here's a guy that really made a difference, and if we don't support people like that, nobody's going to take risks.”

President Obama and Health Care

“It's not clear to me that the health care law is an intelligent way to get costs under control and improve the efficiency of health care.”

“And I think one of the mistakes that the Obama administration made â€" and I've said this before as well â€" is that whether it was health care or Dodd-Frank or the debt ceiling, they let Congress write the legislation. I know of no time in history before that where any president would ever do that. The president sends a bill and then fights for it.”

On Mitt Romney and Bain Capital

“I do think that Romney's business experience would be valuable, but I don't know that running Bain Capital gives you the experience to run the country. The skills to manage Congress, which is your fundamental job as president, aren't necessarily the same.”

“Executives, it's generally you have to make a decision - yes or no. We're going to go or not. We're going to buy it or sell it, or whatever. And it's a different mind-set and a different set of skills.”

Starting His Super PAC

“I happen to think that we have a two-party system more and more people don't think either party is representing them or willing to face the tough issues in this country: immigration, and guns, and choice, and gay rights, and health care costs, and alloc ating care, and deciding who gets what. Those kinds of things. And that's the gap I'm trying to fill.”

On the Bush Tax Cuts

“I particularly don't like a step function where anybody over or under ‘middle class' - I don't know what middle class is. But it's different in every part of the country. It's easy for me to say ‘You should live this way.' But he shouldn't, or I shouldn't.”

On Politicians and Powerful Lobbies

“Let's assume the N.R.A. is putting pressure on them. There has to be something more important than winning an election. I mean, if I stood up and said ‘I don't care about people's lives, let's them kill them. I care about my job I want to get re-elected,' I would make the front page of The New York Times, The Post and The News, a trifecta. That's in fact what they're doing, knowing full-well the carnage in the streets from guns, or the number of people who are getting killed f rom coal-fired power plant pollutants.”

China and the Candidates

“You cannot expect them to say how you would negotiate with China, but just China-bashing doesn't make a lot of sense, given that's the market for American manufacturing in the future.

“China's the boogeyman for all of this. And yet if you stopped imports from China, the shelves of our stores would be empty.”

Report on Iran Talks Reverberates on Sunday Shows

Foreshadowing what could be fierce lines of argument in Monday's final presidential debate, spokesmen for the two candidates jousted on Sunday over whether the United States should seek to engage Iran in one-on-one talks over its nuclear program, or whether Tehran was simply playing for time.

The prospect of such talks was raised in a New York Times article posted on Saturday, and those who commented on Sunday morning television programs said that they had no specific details, or any confirmation, that such talks might be in the offing.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Sunday dismissed the Times report. On Saturday, the White House also denied that a final agreement on direct talks had been reached, while saying that it remained open to such contacts.

But surrogates of Mitt Romney said Iranian motives should be seriously questioned. Supporters of President Obama, in the meantime, said that the tough international sanctions that the president helped marsha l against Iran may be bearing fruit exactly as hoped - that Tehran was finally blinking.

“I hope we don't take the bait,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a Romney backer. “I think this is a ploy by the Iranians” to buy time for their nuclear program and divide the international coalition, he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But an Obama supporter, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, insisted that the international sanctions were clearly succeeding.

“This month of October, the currency in Iran has declined 40 percent in value,” said Mr. Durbin, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, on Fox. “There is unrest in the streets of Tehran, and the leaders in Iran are feeling it. That's exactly what we wanted the sanctions program to do.”

Precisely how the issue might play out in the final debate is unclear. While Mr. Romney has sharply criticized Mr. Obama's handling of Iran â€" starting with his failure to side more vocally with the antigovernment protests there a few years ago â€" his specific plans to halt Iranian nuclear efforts do not appear to go much beyond what Mr. Obama has done.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, who has helped Mr. Romney prepare for his debates, suggested that the report on Iran might be “another example of a national security leak from the White House,” though he offered no evidence. He did say on NBC's “Meet the Press” that the governor would use the debate to “lay out a clear vision for how to get Iran to do the right thing.”

More specifically, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, representing the Romney campaign on three television shows, seemed to suggest that Mr. Romney might at least be open to talks of some sort.

“I think Governor Romney has said repeatedly that armed conflict should be the absolute last measure that one takes,” he said on ABC's “This Week.”

David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president, said he had no knowledge about possible United States-Iranian talks.

“But here is what I do know,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “For two years, the president traveled the world putting together a withering international coalition, and now, the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees.”

The Times, quoting unnamed senior Obama administration officials, reported that after intense, secret exchanges, an agreement has been reached for one-on-one talks between the United States and Iran, which have not had direct diplomatic relations since 1980.

In Iran, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Sunday denied that any direct talks were in the making. “We do not have anything such as talks with the United States,” he told the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

Mr. Salehi predicted that there would be a new round of talks with world powers over Iran's nuc lear program in November. “There is no fixed date yet,” he said.

On Saturday, the White House also denied that such an agreement had been reached. “It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman. But he noted that the administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting from Tehran.

A Football Draw for Romney\'s Staff and the Press

The Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney looks for a coin that he tossed before a flag football game between reporters that cover Romney, and Romney staff on Sunday in Delray Beach, Fla.Evan Vucci/Associated PressThe Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney looks for a coin that he tossed before a flag football game between reporters that cover Romney, and Romney staff on Sunday in Delray Beach, Fla.

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - Mitt Romney will be participating in his own political version of Monday Night Football when he faces off against President Obama in their final debate of the campaign cycle. But on Sunday morning, Mr. Romney took a break from debate preparation to make a stop at a gridiron of a different s ort - a flag football beach face-off between members of the media and members of Mr. Romney's staff.

Mr. Romney, wearing black shorts, a black Adidas T-shirt, and gray sneakers, walked down to the beach after spending the morning at church, and kicked off the game with a coin toss. (The press won that part, with a call of “tails,” prompting Mr. Romney to quip, “That's the last call you guys are getting.”)

“Let's see, look at the captain, Gail's a captain, is that right?” Mr. Romney said, referring to Gail Gitcho, the campaign's communications director. “Got a bracelet for you.”

Mr. Romney then handed Ms. Gitcho a white rubber bracelet that read, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, America Can't Lose,” an apparent twist on the “Friday Night Lights” motto, which Mr. Romney has recently begun quoting on the campaign trial.

“Who's the ringer over here? Who is it, who is it?” Romney asked the assembled reporters. Then, turning to his camp aign staff, clad in red T-shirts, he asked, “Where's Chris Christie when we need him? He's our line.”

Pointing to Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who has been playing Mr. Obama in debate practice sessions, Mr. Romney added, “Senator, ready to go?”

In addition to Mr. Portman and Ms. Gitcho, Team Romney included Austin Barbour, a deputy to a senior member of the strategy team; Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser; Peter Flaherty, another senior adviser; Ed Gillespie, a senior strategist, Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser, and Bob White, the chairman of the campaign.

(Full disclosure: This reporter also played, winning the coin toss for her team, but doing little else by way of yardage accrual.)

There is a long history of candidates and their staff members occasionally interacting with reporters on a social level. Senator John McCain of Arizona hosted a barbecue for the media at his Sedona, Ariz., house four years ago, and the n Senator Obama once played Taboo on his charter with reporters in 2008. At least one member of Mr. Obama's traveling press corps four years ago also sometimes participated in his pick-up basketball games.

Mr. Romney joked that his team should try to win at all costs.

“Don't worry about injuries guys - this counts,” he said. “Win!”

During his brief beach appearance, Mr. Romney also was asked - and ignored - several questions about the news of the day.

“Governor, as president, would you be open to one-on-one talks with Iran?” asked one reporter in the wake of a New York Times report suggesting that such talks were in the offing. The other two questions dealt with recent poll numbers and Monday night's debate.

Garrett Jackson, Mr. Romney's body man, tried to brush the questions off: “Guys, this is a football game,” he said. “Come on. Are you kidding me?”

“I thought you were talking about one-on-one talks with the presid ent,” Mr. Romney said with a laugh. “I was about to answer.”

After Mr. Romney left and the game was in full swing, his wife, Ann, made a brief appearance. After cheering from the sidelines, she finally decided to sub in. With the Secret Service serving as her defensive line, she threw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 7-7.

The game ended early - Mr. Romney's aides needed to get to debate prep, and the reporters had stories to file.

The final score: A 14-to-14 tie.

Moderator Keeps a Low Profile Before Final Debate

Before Candy Crowley's turn as the moderator of the second presidential debate, the veteran CNN political correspondent treated her coming role much like an actress would a new film release.

She granted interviews to newspaper and magazine writers (USA Today, McClatchy, Politico), posed for photo shoots (The New York Times Magazine) and sat for television and radio segments (National Public Radio and local news broadcasts across the country.)

But scan the news articles and blog posts about the final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday, and you won't see much from the mouth of Bob Schieffer, the CBS “Face the Nation” host who will moderate.

Perhaps he is mindful of the criticism that Ms. Crowley faced after last week's debate. Conservatives jumped on her for interjecting with a real-time fact-check over Mitt Romney's assertion that President Obama had not initially called the attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya, an act of t error.

Rush Limbaugh, for instance, called Ms. Crowley's move an “act of journalistic terror.”

On his program on Sunday morning, Mr. Schieffer made only a passing reference to his role on Monday night, saying that he had spent the last month studying up on foreign policy matters, the subject of the debate.

Whatever his reasons for staying mostly quiet, he wasn't sharing them. He did not respond to a request from The New York Times asking for his reflections. He has gone to such lengths to protect his objectivity that he even recused himself from CBS News's coverage of the previous debates this month.

He did, however, grant a recent interview to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he helped cover the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a reporter.

“People pay too much attention to moderators,” he told the newspaper. “We're like the umpires. You only hear criticism from the losing team.”

Sunday Breakfast Menu, Oct. 21

Sunday's Breakfast MenuStephen Crowley/The New York Times

With about two weeks and one debate left, the presidential race is in the home stretch. This week Senator Marco Rubio visits the Sunday shows on behalf of the Romney campaign, discussing the role of his home state of Florida in the election. He will make appearances on ABC's “This Week,” NBC's “Meet the Press” and CBS's “Face the Nation.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, President Obama's former chief of staff, will join Mr. Rubio on ABC to talk about the race. The program will feature a panel with Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee; Ralph Reed, a co-founder and the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition; and Van Jones, a former White House adviser.

David Axelrod, Mr . Obama's senior adviser, and Senator Rob Portman, Florida Republican and Mitt Romney's debate partner, will appear on NBC to weigh in on the final presidential debate, which is on Monday.

Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Obama's deputy campaign manager, and Kevin Madden, Mr. Romney's senior adviser, will talk be on CBS.

Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and ambassador to the United Nations, and Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and presidential candidate, will be on CNN's “State of the Union” to discuss the final debate, which will focus on foreign policy. Also, Senator Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, and Tom Davis, former Virginia representative, will discuss whether Mr. Obama can win Virginia.

In addition, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican of Washington, and Representative Donna Edwards, Democrat of Maryland, will join a panel to weigh in on the fight for women voters.

“Fox News Sunday” is focused on the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, bringing in Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Also on Fox: Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup.

Senator Michael Bennet, Colorado Democrat, is on Bloomberg's “Political Capital,” and Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, will be on C-Span's “Newsmakers” to talk about the looming fiscal cliff.

Among its other guests, Univision's “Al Punto” has Representative David Rivera, Republican of Florida, and his Democratic challenger this November, Joe Garcia.

And David Harewood, actor on Showtime's hit show “Homeland,” is on TV One's “Washington Watch.”

A Debate Partner Who Could Become Secretary of State

To prepare for his debates, the president tapped a Senate veteran who knew the other party's nominee well and could play the part with precision. By the end of their sessions, the president was seriously thinking about his debate practice partner for secretary of state.

Sound familiar? The year was 1996 and the president was Bill Clinton. As he headed into the final stages of his re-election effort, he recruited George J. Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader, to play the part of the Republican nominee, Bob Dole, another former Senate majority leader. To Mr. Clinton, Mr. Mitchell was so impressive he seemed a natural fit as the nation's next top diplomat.

The story has faint echoes this weekend as President Obama and Senator John Kerry square off in debate practices at Camp David before the president's final showdown with Mitt Romney on Monday. Just as Mr. Mitchell knew Mr. Dole better than almost any other Democrat, Mr. Kerry has a good sense of Mr. Romney , his fellow would-be president from Massachusetts. And just as Mr. Mitchell was on the radar screen for Foggy Bottom in a second term back then, so too is Mr. Kerry this year.

But the story may be a cautionary tale for Mr. Kerry. Mr. Clinton considered Mr. Mitchell perhaps his best friend in the Senate. But when John F. Harris reported in The Washington Post that Madeleine K. Albright, then the ambassador to the United Nations, was considered a “second tier” candidate for secretary of state, women's groups erupted with anger and pushed strenuously for her to be appointed as the first woman to hold the post.

Mr. Clinton realized he would have to pass over his debate partner and bow to the inevitable once the first lady intervened. “Hillary Clinton herself now weighed in decisively, making it clear that the president would be facing anger at the office and at home if the choice was anyone else,” Mr. Harris wrote later in “The Survivor,” his history of the Clinton presidency.

Mrs. Clinton, of course, is now the secretary of state. Mr. Kerry's main rival to succeed her is Susan E. Rice, like Ms. Albright the ambassador to the United Nations. Whether Mrs. Clinton is weighing in again is unknown. As it happens, no white male has served as secretary of state since Ms. Albright's appointment, so there are fewer barriers to break. Ms. Rice would not be the first woman or the first African-American to hold the job, or for that matter, even the first African-American woman named Rice to hold the job.

Also unlike in 1996, Ms. Rice is the one who started out as the front-runner, according to White House officials â€" although it would probably be going too far to describe Mr. Kerry as “second tier.”

Follow Peter Baker on Twitter at @peterbakernyt.

Jesse Jackson Jr. Asks His Constituents for Patience

CHICAGO - Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr., who has stayed out of public view for months even as Election Day and his own bid for re-election have approached, reemerged on Saturday. Or at least his voice did, in a brief, recorded statement delivered via telephone to residents in his district on this city's South Side and southern suburbs.

It was an unusual political message (and Mr. Jackson's first since at least June) in what has been one of the more unusual congressional campaigns - or non-campaigns, in the eyes of many here.

“Hello this is Congressman Jackson,” Mr. Jackson says in a quiet, somber voice on the recorded message. “For the past few months I have undergone medical treatment to address several serious health issues. Like many human beings a series of events came together in my life at the same time and they have been difficult to sort through. I am human. I am doing my best.  I am trying to sort through them all.”

Since June, Mr. Jackson, a Democrat and the son of the civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, has been on medical leave from Congress and has made no official appearances in the district that he represented since 1995, or anywhere else. His office has disclosed that he was treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for bipolar disorder and in recent weeks has been recovering at his home in Washington.

While the recorded call - an effort to talk directly to constituents, Mr. Jackson's campaign said - was the first clear sign of Mr. Jackson's involvement as Election Day approaches, few here were expecting a ramp-up of campaigning now. The possibility that Mr. Jackson might yet appear in person on the trail seems remote; recent news reports have suggested that Mr. Jackson might require additional inpatient treatment, and someone close to Mr. Jackson said on Saturday that he was likely to soon return to the Mayo Clinic.

“I am starting to heal,” Mr. Jackson says on the recording. “The good news is my health is improving, but my doctors tell me the road to recovery is a long one. For nearly 18 years I have served the people of the second district, I am anxious to return to work on your behalf, but at this time it is against medical advice, and while I will always give my all to my constituents, I ask for your continued patience as I work to get my health back.”

Even without a real campaign and despite recent revelations that federal authorities were investigating the possible misuse of campaign funds by Mr. Jackson, Mr. Jackson is likely to win re-election, political experts here say. Mr. Jackson is well known, particularly compared with his opponents (a Republican, an Independent and a write-in candidate), and the district leans firmly Democratic.

Mr. Jackson's opponents, all of whom have struggled to draw attention to the race, were quick to respond to Mr. Jackson's recording. Marcus Lewis, an i ndependent, questioned whether Mr. Jackson had really made the recording at all, suggesting that the voice might actually belong to an actor. “Someone should do a voice analysis,” a release from Mr. Lewis said. “There is no proof.”

The Caucus Click: The Week in Pictures, Oct. 14-20

Obama SupporterDamon Winter/The New York TimesA supporter listening to President Obama speak at a campaign rally at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on Oct. 19.

A look back at the week in politics.