WASHINGTON -- For all the intense prep Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are doing in advance of their first debate Wednesday in Denver, there are moments that could well be spontaneous -- such as when Obama told Hillary Rodham Clinton she was "likable enough" during a 2008 primary debate in New Hampshire.
And Clinton surprised her close advisers when in another primary debate -- this one in South Carolina -- she decided to go after Obama by invoking the name of Tony Rezko, asking Obama about legal work he did for "your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago."
At the time -- January 2008 -- even though the Chicago papers were all over Obama and Rezko, the Clinton campaign was frustrated that the national press was giving Obama a pass. By using Rezko's name, Clinton -- unscripted, it turns out -- elevated the Rezko matter and created a peg so compelling that news outlets finally covered questions that, back in the day, surrounded the Rezko/Obama relationship. Rezko is a convicted influence peddler, just to remind you.
With Wednesday's debate looming, I asked Phil Singer, an adviser to Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, how they prepared to face Obama during the primary -- and his answer was instructive on how Romney may try to tackle Obama.
In 2008, the thought was: "The best way to beat Obama was on the substance as opposed to the political one-liners; if you make a substantive argument against what he is doing, it is more effective in trying to push him back on his heels," Singer told me.
At the end of the day, "If substance is his strength, challenge him on his strength," Singer said.
On Monday, in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson -- where Obama set up his debate camp at the Westin resort -- he took a break to show up at a local campaign office, arriving with six pizzas. He told a supporter, "They are making me do my homework."
Obama's prep team includes senior strategist David Axelrod; pollster Joel Benenson; adviser Anita Dunn; Sen. John Kerry, who plays Mitt Romney, and Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden's former chief of staff, who has been doing debate prep for presidential, vice presidential, Senate and House candidates for more than 20 years.
Last June, Klain wrote a memo full of debate-prep tips for Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank -- Bill Daley is on the board -- and said the top goal is to write "your dream post-debate headline" and work backwards.
Other tips: "Develop a list of the three items you must say in the debate" and study what your rival has been saying on the stump. Get transcripts of "everything" and "study them for counter-punching opportunities."
Now it has been reported that Romney's advisers are preparing zingers. Candidates should use them at their own risk.
"It is not good enough with a snappy cliche, you have to come up with one that actually is saying something," Singer said. "People know the difference between a one-liner and a cliche."
When it comes to zingers, Klain advised, a one-liner can be overcome, so develop "five zippy replies to your opponents' five most commonly used lines. . . . And game out responses to your own stump lines . . . nothing is more effective in a debate than a counter-punch punch!"
Especially if it seems spontaneous.
Vice President nominee Paul Ryan hits Rosemont on Oct. 7 for a top-price $151,600-a-couple brunch for Mitt Romney . . . For Obama: Former President Bill Clinton headlines a $10,000-per person funder Oct. 23 at Gibsons. . . . Cubs President Theo Epstein is the draw at an Oct. 17 funder in Chicago, $1,000 to guest, $5,000 to host. . . . Yo-Yo Ma performs a concert funder on Oct. 15, $5,000 to guest, $10,000 to host. . . . MK Chef Michael Kornick offers a lunch and cooking demo funder on Oct. 6, at his restaurant, 868 N. Franklin, $250 per person.