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POLITICS

Obama plays down his odds of winning first debate

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Politics,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

DENVER - President Obama, often hailed for his soaring oratorical skills, is trying to temper expectations for his performance in Wednesday's first presidential debate with Republican Mitt Romney, insisting that for all the talk about how well he talks, Obama doesn't necessarily do as well in face-to-face confrontations.

And political strategists say the president isn't really exaggerating.

In his last round of presidential debates, in 2008, and a recent interview on Univision, political strategists said Obama often came across as arrogant when challenged directly on camera, a potentially devastating habit at a moment when the stakes could not be higher.

"I think he can be very defensive about his record and I think that is where he could lose his cool a little bit," Republican strategist Brad Blakeman told The Washington Examiner.

That's what happened in a Sept. 20 interview on Univision, a Spanish-language network, when the president was challenged over his failure to pass the immigration reform legislation that he promised in the 2008 campaign. A frustrated Obama blamed Republicans for blocking his reforms, but ultimately called it his "biggest failure."

"The president was clearly rattled," Blakeman said. "He hasn't been used to having his feet put to the fire as president."

In Obama's face-off with primary opponent Hillary Clinton just prior to the New Hampshire primary in 2008, he uttered the now famous line "You're likable enough, Hillary."

Two days later, Obama lost the Granite State to Clinton, and some credited his perceived attack on Clinton as his downfall.

Obama has already declared himself an inferior debater to Romney, telling a campaign rally crowd in Nevada that his opponent "is a good debater. I'm just OK."

And he has expressed his disdain for the whole debate process this week, calling the effort to prepare "a drag" and paying hooky from his studies by making an impromptu pizza delivery to a Nevada campaign office located near the lakeside resort where he is hunkered down with aides working to get him ready.

Pat Caddell, a pollster who has worked for a string of Democratic candidates including Jimmy Carter and Gary Hart, warned that Obama is out of practice compared with Romney, who participated in 23 debates during the Republican presidential primary earlier this year.

"He is not well-prepared," Caddell said. "He's rusty. He's been president. He's not challenged."

Like Blakeman, Caddell pointed to the Univision interview as an example of Obama at his worst in a debate format.

"The danger for Obama is allowing Romney to get his footing against him," Caddell said. "So, I think he will just want to keep him at an arm's length."

Democratic strategist Tony Welch added, "Mitt Romney's only hope is to make Obama look defensive."

Romney will have plenty of opportunity.

Moderator Jim Lehrer plans to dedicate the first half of the debate to the economy, an issue on which Obama is vulnerable. Romney has become fluent in attacking the president's economic policies and portraying them as a complete failure.

"The worry for Obama is that Romney comes in and says the next four years will be just like the last four years," said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. "That could potentially put the president on the defensive and raises the question of what would he do differently."

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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