by Jules Witcover

In advance of tonight's first presidential debate in Denver, Republican nominee Mitt Romney has had plenty of advice from prominent kibitzers on what he must do to boost his flagging chances against President Obama.

National polls indicate Romney is still in close contention, but state-by-state surveys show he has been slipping in key battlegrounds such as Ohio and Florida that will be decisive in the Electoral College vote. Many backers have counseled him to stand up firmly to the man in the Oval Office or to spell out in much greater detail what he would do to turn the economy around.

Both these urgings make sense. Yet in a broader sense, tonight's long-anticipated confrontation will be watched to see and hear how the heralded corporate repair man manages to sell himself as a prospective president and world leader.

Despite months of public exposure from the marathon Republican primary debates, his party convention and traveling thousands of miles on the campaign trail, Romney has remained a question mark. What sort of man is behind that friendly if stiff and reserved demeanor? His efforts to connect with Main Street do not seem to have brought Americans to the comfort level they like to have with their leader in the White House.

For all the legitimate complaints millions of Americans have against Barack Obama and his failures to bring faster results to a lagging economy, the president continues to enjoy relatively high personal approval. He is more at ease in public encounters, and his cool confidence on the debating stage is something Romney will have his work cut out to match.

Yet it will be imperative for the challenger to focus more on substance than on style in this first debate. He needs to bring the contest back to his primary argument for being the better candidate -- that he is uniquely suited to lift America out of its economic doldrums and put its millions of unemployed back to work.

That means finally offering a much more specific roadmap to recovery than in his general five-point agenda on education, energy, foreign trade, deficit reduction and small business stimulation. He was able to be clear and definitive enough in his opposition to the auto industry bailout and "Obamacare," but much less so in spelling out how he would deliver on the 12 million new jobs he has promised.

Instead, Romney has allowed himself to be seen, first, as a fawning courtier of the most conservative elements in his party, contradicting his earlier moderate posture. Second, he has encouraged the view of himself as man of great wealth insensitive to the struggles of the less fortunate in the society. His taped fund-raising remarks, in which he dismissed "47 percent" of Americans as non-taxpaying takers of government largesse who would never vote for him anyway, threw him onto the defensive and handed the Obama strategists a bonanza for their television blitz against him.

For all these reasons, tonight's debate will be the greatest challenge for Romney against an incumbent president since Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale faced the hugely popular Ronald Reagan in 1984. Mondale tried candor then, saying in the debate that he would tell the truth on raising taxes, and he was buried on Election Day.

But Romney may have no other recourse than to lay out a much more convincing program of job creation for the "100 percent of Americans" he now claims to champion after his colossal gaffe.

Conservative kibitzers who are advising Romney to pivot suddenly to assaulting Obama for failing to take more decisive action in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are giving him bad advice. Obama has effectively insulated himself on foreign policy with the killing of Osama bin Laden, and by turning away from the adventurism of the previous Republican administration.

Tonight's debate is Romney's best chance yet to make the more convincing case for himself and his plans as Mr. Fix-It at home. He needed to make that case long ago, and now time is running out on him.










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