Klain employed a sports analogy. The Tennessee Titans lost the Super Bowl a couple of years ago because their guy got tackled on the one-yard line, he said—the one-yard line! That’s where we are. The hardest thing for any candidate in a debate is to know the substance. You have that down cold. All we need is a little more effort on performance. You need to go in there and talk as fast as you can. You need to add a little schmaltz, talk about stuff the way that people want to hear it. This isn’t about starting over, starting from scratch. We’ve got most of it right. The part we have left to get right is small. But as the Titans proved, small can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Obama’s aides couldn’t tell if their words were sinking in. “I understand where we are,” the president said finally. I’m either going to center myself and get this or I’m not. The debate’s tomorrow. There’s not much we can do. I just gotta fight my way through it.
As the meeting wound to a close, the Obamans felt relief mixed with trepidation. Oddly, for Klain, the president’s lack of confidence about his ability to turn himself around was comforting. After all the blithe I-got-its of his pre-Denver prep, Obama for the first time was acknowledging that a genuine and serious modification of his mind-set was necessary.
Plouffe felt less reassured. “It’s good news–bad news,” he told Favreau afterward. “The good news is, he recognizes the issue. The bad news is, I don’t know if we can fix it in time.”
The full team reconvened in Obama’s hold room. Klain ran through his memo of the previous night and explained to the president the new new format for his prep: For the rest of the day until his final mock, they were going to drill him incessantly on the ten or so topics they expected to come up in the debate, compelling him to repeat his bullet points over and over again. Klain also presented Obama with his debate-on-a-page:
1. (Your) Speed Kills (Romney)
2. Upbeat and Positive in Tone
3. Passion for People and Plans
4. OTR [Off the Record] Mind-set—Have Fun
5. Strong Sentences to Start and End
6. Engage the Audience
7. Don’t Chase Rabbits
2. Romney + China Outsourcing
3. Heaven & Earth
4. 9/11 Girl
5. Sketchy Deal
6. Mass Taxes—Cradle to Grave
7. Preexisting and ER
8. Women’s Health
9. Borrow From Your Parents
REBUTTAL CHEAT SHEET
1. Jobs—The 1-point plan
2. Deficits—$7 trillion and The Sketchy Deal
3. Energy—Coal plant is a killer
4. Health—Preexisting fact check and the ER
5. Medicare—He wants to save Medicare … by ending it!
6. Bus Taxes—60 Mins in rebuttal (i.e., pivot to personal taxes)
7. Pers Taxes—Tax cuts for outsourcing (i.e., pivot to job creation)
8. Gridlock—Romney brings the lobbyist back
9. Benghazi—Taking offense
10. Education—Borrow from your parents and/or Size Doesn’t Matter
That the intervention had had some effect on Obama was immediately apparent, though how much was unclear. He brought a new energy and focus to his afternoon drills. When he delivered an imperfect answer, he stopped himself short: “Let’s do that again.” At his debate camp before Denver, outside Las Vegas, Obama had been so intent on escaping that he took off one day for a visit to the Hoover Dam. Now he refused even brief breaks for a walk by the river. As the afternoon went on, the debate team concocted cutesy catchphrases to cue him at the slightest hint of backsliding.
“Fast and hammy! Fast and hammy!” Klain would say when his delivery was lugubrious.
“Punch him in the face!” Karen Dunn, another team member, chipped in when he missed a chance to cream Kerry-as-Mitt.
For Klain, the turning point came that afternoon, during a session in which Obama was fielding questions from junior members of the team who were standing in as voters. Tony Carrk, a researcher, introduced himself as Vito, a barbershop proprietor from Long Island, and asked which tax plan—Obama’s or Romney’s—would be better for small-business owners like him. Without missing a beat, the president savaged Mitt’s plan with verve, precision, and bite, closing with some good-natured joshing about Vito’s shop.
The perfect town-hall answer, Klain thought.
That night, for the final mock, Kerry was instructed to bring his A-game. With the team on pins and needles, Obama earned a solid B-plus. The contrast with the previous night was so dramatic it called to Axelrod’s mind the triumphant scenes in Hoosiers. When it was over, the team rose in unison and gave Obama a standing ovation.
“All right, all right, all right,” the president said, waving them off, smiling abashedly.
The next morning, before setting off for Hofstra, the team gathered once again in Obama’s hold room to review the mock. No one was remotely certain they were out of the woods. The past three days had carried them too close to the abyss for firm convictions of any kind. But the president’s mood could not have been more buoyant. Running through the team’s critique, he reveled in their praise of a particularly strong answer.
“Oh, you guys liked that?” Obama said, grinning broadly. “That was fast and hammy, right?”