What Romney Has To Do At Tonight’s Debate

In the wake of the loss in Florida yesterday, Mitt Romney needs to focus on tonight’s debate to break out as the conservative choice for the nomination. John McCain has taken leads in significant Super Tuesday states, and tonight will be the last national audience for all of the remaining candidates before 21 states go to the polls or the caucuses. Romney has to ignite conservatives and make this a binary race across a clear ideological line.
Some feel that the moment has already passed. Writers at The Corner and Dick Morris have resigned themselves to a Romney loss before more than 10% of the necessary delegates have been won. Others, like my friend and indefatigable Romney supporter Hugh Hewitt, argue that the numbers show that no one can win next week. The truth lies in between, as Hugh has the numbers correct but avoids acknowledging the role momentum plays.
Romney has one big advantage, but it will only be an advantage this week. He has better organizational strength and more resources. He can be more places at the same time as John McCain, which makes a difference when 21 states hold their contests on the same day. He can get his message across to more people simultaneously after this debate, and do it more often. After February 5th, that becomes far less necessary as we go back to a series of one- or two-state primary dates that stretches into April, when Pennsylvania goes to the polls.
If Romney wants to build momentum and define the race in binary conservative vs moderate terms, he has to start tonight and get aggressively positive about his credentials. He has only a few days in which he can crowd McCain out of the messaging. If he can’t do that tonight and for the next five days, he will have little chance of prevailing, especially if McCain takes a big delegate lead next week.
What does McCain need to do? He needs to reach out to conservatives. He started last night with a gracious victory speech, but he needs to address the real and honest concerns on policy that conservatives still have with McCain. They need to see McCain promise to go after the Democrats with the same fervor that he went after Republicans over the years, and he has to convince them that he won’t go back on his word on border security and tax cuts. After this debate, he has to make a significant outreach effort, and CPAC would be the best place to do this.
We will live-blog this debate, as always, at Heading Right this evening, starting before the 8 pm ET start. We will also have our normal Debate Central recap afterwards; time TBA.

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