Barack Obama confessed to being underwhelming after his first presidential debate against Mitt Romney in 2012. (Obama: “I had a bad night.”) Romney soared in the polls after commanding the debate stage with his hair, his confidence, his bluster and his genuine frustration. There will be a candidate on stage in the primetime GOP debate also known for his hair, confidence, bluster and frustration — genuine or not. His name, you may have heard it recently, is Donald Trump.
Trump is in a position to do exactly what Romney did against Obama in 2012. That is, catch everyone by surprise by not being a caricature. What if Trump can suddenly sound reasonable instead of reactionary, poised instead of pissed, and gracious instead of grating? (He’s in the lead, after all.) The stage is set for Trump to truly surprise — as Romney did — people who have only encountered the caricature of his persona and who believe there’s little substance behind it. If Trump backs up just a few of his assertions with facts and resists the temptation to grandstand, he’ll be a big winner. Because this debate is too large to be about substance — it’s all about style, in 60 seconds or less. Just by acting unlike what people expect from him, Trump can change the optics.