Duane Morris law partners partners and national-level campaign fundraisers John Soroko (Republican, typically) and Alan Kessler (Democrat, more often than not) met this morning for breakfast at the Four Seasons, to argue about tonight's Presidential debate and the prospects for the candidates among corporate donors and business voters. Excerpts:
SOROKO: People know my political connections, people understand Alan's political connections, but if we're talking about the firm, remember, we are inclusive.
KESSLER: Well, you know how lawyers are. We're like candidates in the debates. We get to what we want to say, regardless of what the question is.
S: You take the question - "'Yes, your honor' - you answer it and then you tie it in to the points you want to make.
K: Only the candidates do it in a way that's really obvious. Hey, (Pa. political consultant) Larry Ceisler was emailing me during the vice-presidential debate. He couldn't believe the laughing, the interruptions. I asked him, what's that doing to the independent voters? He said the independent voters are all watching the Steelers game! It's more about what you guys in the press say after the debate. That seems to be what the independent voters are looking at. And that's why both candidates have spin. It's almost more important than the debate.
Q: Does Obama have a chance of recovering from his lousy performance in the previous debate?
K: So long as he doesn't do what Al Gore did against George (W.) Bush. Gore went from one extreme to the other; he was criticized for being too soft, then too hard. The President has got to come across, has got to act, Presidential. Make his case in a stronger way, but not be too aggressive.
Q: Does Romney need to engage, too?
S: I'm not seeing a lot of Romney yard signs. But I'm definitely not seeing Obama yard signs the way I did in '08. You can only have one historic election with all the fervor that goes with that.
Alan's best friend, Bill Clinton, called Obama '08 a fairy tale. You're just not seeing that enthusiasm now. You knew this was going to be a tight election; you knew Obama had to go down from that point. When Obama goes down a few percentage points, Romney wins.
So, the debates, they're just a pivot point for a recalculation of what people were going to do in the first place. Most Americans don't really want a European style socialist system where the only thing growing is the government sector.
K: What happened after the first debate, Obama had been increasing his lead in the battleground states, it almost looked like it was over in Ohio, and then his (weak performance) has had an effect on other, competitive races.
Enthusiasm (for Romney) went back up and a host of people are coming back to their roosts. That's the difference. It's not the swing voters. People who were undecided, still are.
It's not just on the presidential level. We have a pretty important Senate race, in Pennsylvania. The aftershocks of the debate impact the Senate race . The state attorney general race looked like it was over. But there's been an effect on those races, from the presidential level.
Q: Have the Republicans been able to convince Jewish voters and donors that Obama is less committed to Israel?
K: After Obama gave that 1967 Israel borders speech in May of 2011 there were a lot of Jewish Democrats who were upset or ready to sit this one out or worse. But then he made that second speech at AIPAC, he reminded people he hasn't said anything different than the presidents before. So does the whole Jewish community, of which I'm not a spokesman, do they feel more comfortable or better with Obama? I think yes since that speech.
And then in the vice presidential debate, Biden hit that issue head on. The Iran sanctions, Biden said, it's working. What more could we do? Other than go to war. Ryan didn't answer that question.
Obama has to do what Biden did and come out and say, we will do all we need to do to make sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.
S: This is weak foreign policy. We are not loved and we are not feared. We are losing at both ends. So Romney doesn't have to say a lot . Tere's a queasiness with Obama on all the international issues. This is a guy who won't put the word Islamic and Terrorists in the same sentence. People understand that we're at risk. There was the killing by our troops of bin Laden. But Obama has a softer outlook.
Obama put old Clinton people in charge of the economy; isn't Romney going to do the same with foreign policy people from the Bush administration, who got us into those expensive, deadly, endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
S: Who are the people you want for your security team? The people Obama has surrounded himself with? Or the people Romney might reach out to? People think we're safer with Romney and the Republicans because Obama is weak. Obama has a confused world view, he has a more 'nuanced' view, and I use that term pejoratively. Look at South America. The New York Post had a picture of him smiling with Chavez.
Q: What should the Republicans do about Chavez? He and people like him are popular in Latin America.
S: It looks like Chavez's bloody, oppressive regime doesn't bother Obama.
Q: Do we invade Venezuela?
S: We don't pose with Chavez. Look. I'm a lawyer. I'm not a foreign policy expert. But imagery moves voters.
A lot of voters are scared with the notion of Barack Obama being the chief defender of the United States of America. He doesn't seem to remember who the good guys are.
K: When you talk about an aggressive posture, you're talking about wars, and the costs are enormous.
S: This guy has given the back of his hand to (Israeli premier Binyamin) Netanyahu.
K: Romney is talking about an additional $2 trillion for Defense that the Pentagon hasn't even asked for. Wars are costly. If that's the only foreign-policy alternative you have, I don't know what more we can be doing, short of war. How it affects the economics of the country, you dont hear a great deal about.
S: I still say he has a hard time differentiating between good guys and bad guys. That he believes, in some sense, we brought this on ourselves. It's a typical left wing view of things. Maybe that's all right if you're a professor at Penn. But you can't be President of the U.S. and have that viewpoint about it's all the US's fault.
Q: The US won World War II and we ran the world for awhile. But we're not so rich as we used to be. Romney sounds like he wants to go back to those days, but can we afford that, without boosting taxes or cutting Medicare and Social Security?
S: Obama said 4 yrs ago we're at a breaking point, we have to find another way to grow, to succeed. He hasn't found that point. So people won't follow him. Now what?
A lot of people tied themselves into pretzels to vote for this guy. This time people in meaningful numbers wont spend the energy to do that.
K: Obama has to make the case for himself, which he didn't in the first debate. And he has to talk about his opponent.
It's not just, do we have confidence in the President? It's also, if you don't like Obama -- remember when he took over the country was on the verge of falling into a Great Depression -- which it didn't do. He has to show that he has been an able leader. Do you really think you'd be better off with the other guy?
When you're running against a former governor, you have an executive who's got a record. Obama should compare a little and draw attention to that Romney record. The guy was for abortion, now he's against. He was for Obamacare, now he's against. Gore got excoriated by not carrying Tennessee. Romney failed to carry Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy in his last election. If Romney doesn't have the confidence of the voters of Massachusetts, how can he win the other 49 states?
Q: I hear Obama's fundraising dinners in Philadelphia have gotten smaller each year, yet nationally he's actually raising more money than Romney.
K: You still have major donors. I can think of some guys.... they liked Hilary, they don't particularly like this guy, but they can't help themsleves. The money is coming in. Even from the investment banks. Everybody covers their bets. Even the most conservative companies. They find a way. It doesn't always filter in directly. It can be the DNC, it can be these joint federal-state PACs or the superPACS. There are people who are blindly writing checks.
Q: What about tonight's debate?
S: That open town-hall forum, that may soften some of these issues. The questions start with the people. The questions could be tough to pull toward what the candidates want to say. I've heard a lot of people say, because of that, this is likely to be less decisive. It's like going up against a knuckleball.