Town-hall format could pose challenge for Romney

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

In his first debate against President Obama, Mitt Romney seemed to effortlessly pass his most critical test: appearing to undecided voters as presidential.

The Republican challenger was confident and relaxed as he stood behind his podium, narrowing in just 90 minutes a sizable "stature gap" between himself and the man who has been commander-in-chief for four years.

In Tuesday night's second head-to-head contest, one of his new tasks will be something Romney has faced throughout the six years he's essentially run for the nation's highest office: demonstrating that he feels the pain of regular voters and is able to connect with them on a human level.

By projecting a firm but affable demeanor against Obama in Denver, the GOP nominee went a long way toward countering the opposition's ad-driven portrayal of him as a hardhearted and self-interested capitalist. In a Pew poll released after the first debate, Romney led Obama among likely voters by a 49 percent to 45 percent margin -- a dramatic swing from a Pew survey three weeks earlier, in which Obama led his challenger by 51 percent to 43 percent.

But in the same poll conducted at the height of Romney's post-debate glow, the former Massachusetts governor still faced a 29-point deficit when respondents were asked which candidate best connects with ordinary Americans.

Republicans acknowledge the perils of this gulf and see Tuesday night's face-off at Hofstra University as a prime opportunity to close it significantly.

"If someone spent over $100 million in TV ads calling you a liar, a cheat, whose policies kill people, you would have a connectivity and empathy problem, too," said Republican strategist Jim Dyke. "Every time he gets the opportunity to make his case based on who he is and his life experiences directly to the American people, the pendulum swings further in his direction."

Since the first debate, Romney has made impromptu campaign stops at fast-food restaurants and other small venues, which offer face-to-face encounters with average Americans -- a change of strategy after he spent months giving scripted stump speeches and attending fundraisers with wealthy donors.

Last Wednesday, Romney joined the Republican widely regarded as a maestro of the town-hall format -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- in taking questions from voters at a factory in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

In the past, impromptu moments of stilted conversation and awkward jokes have handicapped Romney -- someone never accused of being an innately charismatic candidate.

But over the years he appears to have improved his ability to connect with voters on a personal level. For one thing, Romney is no stranger to question-and-answer sessions, having handled thousands of inquiries from mostly partisan voters in his four political campaigns over almost two decades. In fact, aides to Obama say the town-hall format is a strength for their Republican opponent because of this experience.

  • Scott Conroy On Twitter»

    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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