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.
During his 2008 presidential run, for example, so-called "Ask Mitt Anything" events were a staple of his time on the stump; some days he would often hold four or five such town-hall meetings. And during his 2012 primary campaign, particularly in the nation's first voting state of New Hampshire, Romney did more of the same.
But his strategists acknowledge that the format, as applied to a debate, is a different entity and not something their candidate has experienced before.
The rules state that each undecided voter selected by the Gallup Organization will ask a question, to which each candidate will have two minutes to answer before moderator Candy Crowley initiates an additional one minute of further discussion.
It will thus have far more structure compared to town-hall meetings on the stump, where the candidate is essentially his own moderator.
"He's done his share of town halls, but a town hall when you're debating is different than a town hall that's yours," said a senior Romney aide. "It's a town hall where you have only two minutes to answer a question versus a town hall where you can have an honest conversation with somebody about an issue. It's just different. All of these town halls he's done [so far] aren't really typical."
After an extended campaign swing through Ohio, Romney decamped to Boston on Saturday night where he planned to spend the better part of two days engaged in debate preparation with top aides and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who has earned accolades internally for his portrayal of Obama in mock debates.
Romney strategists say that an additional hurdle they've prepared for is a newly invigorated Obama, whom just about everyone expects after the incumbent's surprisingly lackluster performance in Denver.
"President Obama does well in these town-hall formats; we also think this type of format is conducive to the type of one-on-one conversation that Governor Romney wants to have with voters about the big issues facing the country," said senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. "The Obama campaign has promised a more aggressive President Obama in this next debate. We expect he'll launch one attack after another in an attempt to distract from his record and make up for his weak performance in Denver."
The likely need to respond forcefully to an aggressive opponent will make it more challenging for Romney to simultaneously project a relaxed demeanor toward those asking the questions. But his strong performance in Denver left many supporters optimistic that he will rise to the occasion.
"I think the format is better suited to Obama," said GOP strategist Mark McKinnon. "The bar now is low for him in that if he just shows up awake it will probably be scored as a victory. But I don't discount Romney's ability to raise the level of his game in debates. He did it over and over again in the primaries, and he did it two weeks ago."
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