A Few Romney-Gingrich Debate Comebacks Lessons

Last night former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, attempted to undermine Governor Mitt Romney’s claim that as a businessman he’s better suited to be president in these harsh economic times.  Romney’s implication is that he is not a career politician. Gingrich went on the offensive by saying that Romney would have been a career politician had he not lost a senate seat to Ted Kennedy.  That was a choice point for Romney.  His comeback was unfortunately late.  When it came, it was intelligent and funny.  Instead of countering Gingrich’s attack with defensiveness, he agreed with him in part.  Romney replied that had he made it into the NFL, he would have had a career in football.  And, went on to say that the loss to Ted Kennedy was a good thing as it brought Romney into business —  preparing him for the presidency in these tough economic times.  Good, but late.

Romney’s response is what I’ve termed “linking” in THE SECRET HANDSHAKE and THE SKILLED NEGOTIATOR.  Rather than attack your attacker’s argument, you agree with part or all of it and then link that premise to support of your views.  Romney’s loss was in terms of timing.

Romney needs to be quicker on his feet.  He needs some ready comebacks to buy time. He might have said with a smile, “You must have been up all night thinking of that one” or “You’ve certainly set the tone for this debate.  And it’s not looking pretty.”  After such a comeback, he could have delivered a blow to the former speaker who prides himself as an historian.  “As an historian you would know dates and times, but this country needs someone looking forward not backward.”

Had Romney and the other candidates been less kind when answering the family values question — whether infidelity is relevant to being president — he would have demonstrated that he, too, can give as good as he gets.  He might have said, “Taking your directness lead from earlier, let me say this.  You may regret choices you’ve made in your personal life, but  you left two wives who were ill to be with other women.  One had cancer.”  Is that too rude, too beneath Romney?  Not if Gingrich is delivering low-blows.  And not if Romney really believes such decisions are important to the presidency.  Instead he talks about having 16 grandchildren.  They all do that.  It’s a numbers game. Congratulations!  But what does that have to do with bad choices and unethical behavior?  Is someone with sixteen grandchildren a better person than someone with two?  Not necessarily.

One of the candidates may have said, “We could dance around this issue, but it’s too important” and then addressed Gingrich’s marital choices.

Effectiveness depend a good deal on how comebacks are said.  But it was rather chicken of the other candidates to not take on Gingrich where they say it matters — family values choices.

Today on Meet The Press, Lisa Myers said that Gingrich’s response to the other candidates’ views on family values resulted in perhaps Gingrich’s best moment.  The other candidates gave him that moment — on a silver platter.

Gingrich is not so much a wonderful debater (this from a former one) as he is up against people who aren’t.  The next time he attacks, the other candidates would be wise to be less sheepish.  They needn’t go over the line with nastiness (and admittedly that’s a fine line), they simply need to let the American people know that they aren’t going to tip-toe around an issue that they say is so relevant to the presidency.

Instead of foolishly telling us how many children or grandchildren they have as if that tells us what kind of spouse and father/mother they’ve been, they should focus on the heart of the issue.  Gingrich was not a boy when he left his cancer-stricken wife.  He was even older when he did the same to his second wife — also ill.  He’s counting on the other candidates thinking the issue is too delicate.  I don’t think Barack Obama is going to let him get away with that.  Apparently, the Republican candidates are.

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