Advice overload precedes Romney's debate

After getting off his message and taking hits in the polls, Mitt Romney is shifting his campaign strategy. Jan Crawford reports on Romney's attempt to get back on track.
Alex Wong

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

(CBS News) As the polls were beginning to turn more definitively against Mitt Romney last week, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal called for an "intervention" for the former Massachusetts governor's presidential campaign, encouraging like-minded thinkers on the right to offer the Republican presidential nominee some advice.

For starters, Noonan had some counsel of her own.

"He should stick to speeches, and they have to be big -- where America is now, what we must do, how we can do it," she wrote. "He needs to address the Mideast too, because it isn't going to go away as an issue and is adding a new layer of unease to the entire election."

Since the day Romney launched his second run for the presidency nearly a year-and-a-half ago, a steady stream of such guidance has come his way from conservative media figures, the messages focused on what he has been doing wrong and how he needs to change his trajectory.

Now, amid his slide in the polls and just one week until the first Romney-Obama debate, that stream of advice has become more like a waterfall.

"He needs to hone his message,"'s Erick Erickson wrote on Tuesday. "He needs to focus on the failings of this administration."

Newt Gingrich -- who knows a thing or two about Romney's debating strengths and weaknesses after facing off against him 21 times during the GOP primaries -- offered some pugnacious instruction of his own on Wednesday.

"Be assertive and be on offense against both Obama and his media," he wrote. "You can be on offense without being offensive. The strongest reactions I got to my debates came from people who were desperate for someone to stand up to the media and redefine the questions and reframe the assumptions. Americans are sick and tired of the unending liberalism and suffocating groupthink of the elite media."

Some of the unsolicited advisers may have their own reasons for bestowing such guidance publicly, but that doesn't change one essential fact: the seemingly unending flow of it.

In addition to the public counsel Romney has received ahead of the debate in Denver, he has been besieged with even more well-intended coaching from wealthy donors at private fundraisers, from rank-and-file Republicans who speak up at post-rally rope lines, and during phone calls with key Republican leaders, according to a campaign aide.

And that is to say nothing of the specific guidance Romney has received from top advisers during the several days of official debate preparation he has already engaged in.

Undoubtedly, the barrage of advice must at times seem contradictory to the presidential challenger as he tries to digest it all.

Numerous prominent Republicans, for instance, have called on him to be more specific about his vague proposals for cutting government programs. But longtime GOP debate coach Brett O'Donnell, who guided Romney before some of his primary debates, suggested to Robert Draper in a recent GQ story that getting bogged down in data was a potential hazard for Romney.

"Debates aren't a game of 'Jeopardy!' -- it's not about question-and-answer," O'Donnell said.

The conflicting counsel could become particularly distracting for Romney as he prepares for what might be his last best chance to change the direction of the race: the debate next week with Obama.

According to Bruce Buchanan, a historian of presidential politics at the University of Texas, Romney would be wise to largely ignore much of the advice coming from his right flank as he seeks to win over the independents and previously undecided voters who have swung to Obama recently after having voted for him in 2008.

"He's up against someone the country likes personally more than they like him," Buchanan said. "I think what Romney could do is strike a reasonable tone, rather than the aggressive tone he displayed when debating against Republicans, which would help humanize him."

In an interview that aired Sunday on "60 Minutes," Romney told CBS News' Scott Pelley that his campaign "doesn't need a turnaround." In addition, top campaign officials continue to insist publicly that the GOP nominee remains on track to win a neck-and-neck race.

But with Romney falling farther behind in a host of new swing-state polls released this week and trailing Obama nationally by 4.0 percent in the latest RCP Average, the temptation for him to swing for the fences at the first debate likely will be strong.

Though the need for him to change the race's dynamic remains apparent, the peril of trying to do too much too quickly is evident in recent presidential political history: There are no examples of a candidate using a single debate performance to turn a lagging effort into a come-from-behind victory.

Romney's best bet, Buchanan suggested, is to lay out his overall case in a manner that is designed to make inroads incrementally, rather than attempting to do it all with a memorable sound bite or a well-timed cutting remark.

"You can work on your negatives and you can try to portray a plausible alternative," Buchanan said. "Even if it's a very clever, classic putdown such as Lloyd Benson's putdown of Dan Quayle, those things are not usually game changers so much as they are entertainment makers. So I don't think there's any way to hit a home run in that sense."

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