Getting Ready to Rumble

Article excerpt

Byline: Michelle Cottle

Incumbents are rusty at debate. Try telling them that.

Buckle down and toughen up. Those are the two bits of advice that debate experts offer President Obama heading into his trio of face-offs with Mitt Romney.

The last big show before polling day, presidential debates are high-stakes affairs, especially in a skin-tight race. The campaigns recognize that this is no time to play around: both are working feverishly to get their guys primed and polished.

Most prep basics are standard for both candidates: know the issues, know the opposition, keep it brief, keep it human, have a core message, watch your body language.

In readying a sitting president, however, Team Obama has a set of incumbent-specific hurdles to clear. Most notably, they've got to convince one of the most powerful men on earth that he's not as hot as he thinks he is.

"Incumbents sometimes get out of shape," says strategist (and Daily Beast contributor) Paul Begala, a key debate prepper for both of Bill Clinton's White House runs. While the challenger gets honed by the primary debates, the incumbent has been operating inside the presidential bubble. "Very few people smack the president of the United States upside the head," notes Begala, "and that's what a president needs."

Republican debate guru Brett O'Donnell agrees. "Presidents think, well, I won last time; I must be a pretty good debater. So it's harder to convince them that they need to work at it to take the rust off--to convince them this set of debates is entirely unique from the last set because they're facing a different candidate."

Drafted by Karl Rove to prep George W. …