ABC The Drum

A strong debate performance from Mitt Romney will likely serve only to staunch the bleeding, says

Presidential debate month kicks off in the United States today. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will spar three times in October, the last opportunities for each candidate to make their case to a national audience.

For a flagging Romney, it is also the best chance to turn his campaign around. Can he do it?

It's debatable. Several weeks ago, the debates were a promising opportunity for the Republican candidate. He lagged just a point or two behind the president in most polls as Obama's convention bounce wilted. A few ill-considered comments, like his rushed denunciation of the administration during the embassy attacks, seemed to have little impact on the race.

Romney's main problem, most observers concluded, was his vagueness. Five years of campaigning, millions of dollars, and a major national convention had done nothing to bring Romney's blurry candidacy into focus.

That ambiguity was no accident. The campaign chose a strategy of non-definition: Be everybody's anybody-but-Obama candidate. Don't say anything that might drive anyone away.

In an interview this spring, Romney noted that giving specifics hurt him in his 1994 senate race. His solution? Withhold all details. He said he would certainly cut some government agencies, "But I'm not going to give you a list right now." Nor was he willing to offer specifics on his tax plan, his jobs program, or his immigration reforms.

Romney's strategy, such as it was, rested on the assumption that a bad economy would be enough to move Obama voters into his camp. Yet as summer slipped into fall, Obama maintained a small but consistent lead. Making the election a referendum on Obama, it turned out, wasn't a winner.

The decision to choose Paul Ryan, an ideological firecracker destined to shake up the race, seemed to signal the campaign's new strategy. Risky, sure, given the draconian Ryan budget, which seemed to declare, "We are all Dickensians now." But at least the race would be about something.

Romney, however, soon returned to a safe crouch. The Republican convention, designed to (re-)introduce Romney to America, was a soft-focus affair of little consequence. It will be remembered as the place Clint Eastwood debated an empty chair (and lost).

But far more damaging than the invisible Obama was the invisible Romney the convention produced. Two months from election day, and the Republican candidate was as undefined as ever.

Thus the debates as the campaign's saving grace. Romney had tried and failed to introduce himself to the American people for months. Standing side-by-side with Obama, forced to draw contrasts between the president's vision and his own — this, surely, would be Romney's hour.

Yet it all disappeared in the soft clinking of silverware on China, as donors settled into their $50,000-a-plate dinners and listened to Romney explain why 47 per cent of Americans were shiftless spongers whose needs he wasn't terribly concerned about.

Instant clarity. The hidden-camera footage of this behind-closed-doors Romney helped everything snap into focus. These were the politics of a man with Cayman accounts and a car elevator. It felt right — a difficult logic to uproot.

Difficult, but not impossible. The real problem with the 47 per cent comments, the reason they have scotched the debates' redemptive potential, is that they demolished Romney's ability to talk his way into voters' good graces. What can he possibly say in public that is not immediately undercut by the knowledge of what he said in private?

Gaffes, leaks, hidden-camera clips — these incidents have such power with voters because we tend to believe they provide rare glimpses of the candidates' genuine beliefs.

The 24/7 news environment forces campaigns to manage candidates down to their slightly-scuffed loafers, making authenticity a scarce commodity. The thing he didn't mean to say, or better yet, that he didn't mean for you to hear, trumps 20 stump speeches and slickly-packaged ads.

For Romney, then, a strong debate performance will likely serve only to staunch the bleeding. Now the walking wounded, he cannot talk himself into better health. He can only hope that the ever-cautious Obama stumbles as badly.

Which means we all suffer. Because at a time when America's foreign and domestic responsibilities are ill-defined, its debt crippling, its economy wheezing, we deserve real debates between serious candidates: answers, not ambiguities; plans, not platitudes.

Indeed, Romney's unwillingness to make his campaign about that may have lost him the debates — and the election — long before his comments on the 47 per cent.

This article was originally published at ABC's The Drum