3:45 pm Oct. 2, 2012
In recent days, voters have been sent two different messages from the Romney camp regarding Wednesday night's debate.
The first is: Don’t expect much. The other? This event will be a game-changer that enables Mitt Romney to “restart” the campaign.
So which is it?
The first is standard "expectations" nonsense, which both campaigns ritualistically engage in and which has already been too ably ridiculed to spend any more time on it.
The second, most vociferously delivered by Romney supporter Chris Christie, and echoed by Romney's more marginal surrogates, is an effort to inject hope into a fading campaign that desperately needs to avoid being written off.
Both assertions are pure spin. But only the second one makes sense as a tactic.
Consider the state of Romney's campaign right now. It's struggling in every swing-state poll. Donors are panicking. Its own members are leaking to the press. Leading conservatives are publicly chastising it. Columnists are writing satires that people now confuse for the truth.
It would be premature to declare the race over. But premature declarations have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
Hence: Mitt Romney is going to crush Obama at the debate, and his performance will turn the campaign on its head.
Either the campaign gets people to buy into that, or it's that downward spiral wherein positive "earned" media from process-driven reporters becomes harder to come by, money for paid media goes away when fund-raisers direct their resources toward more hopeful causes, and the campaign staff begin thinking about how they're going to make a livelihood after Election Day.
At a certain point, conservatives in the party get outraged at the nominee, and at the party, because their candidate isn't acting conservative enough, and start offering helpful advice. (At around this point in the cycle in 2008, their cry was for John McCain to right his listing campaign by turning Sarah Palin loose.) Worse, prominent commentators start in with the pre-mortems, arguing, as Rush Limbaugh already has, about who's going to get the blame for a Romney loss.
For the Romney campaign to downplay the significance of the debates, then, would be to eliminate one of the few turnaround scenarios the establishment might still be willing to countenance. They got their V.P. pick, and that didn’t work. They got their convention, and that actually made things worse. Now they have three debates.
Christie says tomorrow is "a big night," you'd better believe it. Romney's continued relevance may depend on it.
Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.