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Is Mitt Romney a superstar?

Oct 2, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Wednesday night brings the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. There will be two others later this month.

Polling numbers haven't been going well for Romney, and the president's re-election chances look better now than they did a few months ago.

Romney is hoping for a breakthrough in the debates that might turn the tide, but he's got a tough chore. Whatever the knocks on Obama, and there are lots of them in our state, being a poor debate performer isn't one of them. Anything could happen, of course, but there's not a lot for Romney to hang his hat on as the debate nears.

Beyond the debate prospects is the plain truth that unseating a sitting President of the United States is a hard thing to do. The presidential election a month from now will be the 56th, and an incumbent has been defeated just 10 times.

That's a powerful statistic, but it has more behind it than math. Even when a president is vulnerable to defeat, it takes a transformative person to do the trick.

Since 1900, five incumbents have lost. One of them, Gerald Ford, had risen from the U.S. House of Representatives to the vice presidency and the presidency without having been elected to either office. He's a unique case in that he replaced both the disgraced Spiro Agnew as VP and the about-to-be impeached Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. He barely had a year as president before he had to run on his own, and that chance came only after a bruising primary battle with Ronald Reagan. Ford was beaten by Jimmy Carter.

Setting Ford's unique situation aside, it's clear that if an incumbent president loses, it's when a one-of-a-kind opponent is on the other side of the ballot.

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson unseated William Howard Taft. Wilson was a unique figure on politics, best known as a university president, not a politician (he did serve a term as governor of New Jersey). Assisting him that year was another star, Teddy Roosevelt, the still highly popular former president who ran as a third-party candidate and got a lot of votes. Wilson won. Taft was out.

In 1932, Herbert Hoover was defeated in his re-election bid by Franklin D. Roosevelt, a spectacular new star in the political heavens who went on to be re-elected three more times as he saw the nation through the Great Depression and World War II.

In 1980, Carter was sent packing by another superstar, Ronald Reagan. Today Reagan is the most revered figure in modern Republican politics (although he would have a tough time getting his party's nomination nowadays).

And in 1992, George H.W. Bush lost out for a second term when the force of nature named Bill Clinton arrived on the scene. Even after impeachment, Clinton left office with a two-thirds approval rating from the public.

By contrast, consider some other presidents who seemed possible to topple, but survived. Harry Truman was not yet the widely admired president he is today when he had to run in 1948, but his opponent, Thomas Dewey, was nothing special, a guy who already had lost one presidential election. He blew what looked like a big lead when Truman outworked him.

Dwight Eisenhower was stiff and bland as a candidate and a president, inexperienced in politics and bogged down by the Korean War. But it would have taken a far more powerful and charismatic figure than limp-noodle Democrat Adlai Stevenson to defeat the World War II icon Eisenhower. Stevenson tried and failed to beat Eisenhower -- twice.

The beginnings of the Watergate scandal emerged during the presidential election year of 1972, and Richard Nixon was hamstrung by the Vietnam War. Even so, the Democrats couldn't muster an effective candidacy against the doomed Nixon. Lyndon Johnson was drinking his way to an early grave in Texas, Hubert Humphrey was branded as a loser, Bobby Kennedy was dead, Ted Kennedy had his own scandal to deal with, and on the list went until the Dems put up George McGovern. Less than two years before he would resign the presidency in ignominy, Nixon overpowered McGovern in one of history's biggest landslides.

George W. Bush, stumbling through a first term in which he had spent nearly the equivalent of a full year on vacation and had built a list of faux pas unmatched in modern presidential history, might have been ripe for plucking. But Bill Clinton was out of the picture, and Barack Obama hadn't appeared in it yet. John Kerry simply wasn't of the same unique cloth from which Wilson/TR, FDR, Reagan and Clinton had been cut, and Bush won a second term.

Barack Obama has been a polarizing figure who has struggled with a recessed economy. He has a lot of things working against him and is openly despised by nearly half of the electorate. But a candidate of unique ability is require to oust an incumbent. Is Mitt Romney that candidate? Does he have the right stuff to unseat a president. Is he the transformational figure that FDR or Reagan were? Is he the superstar that Clinton was? Is he the kind of candidate to defy predictions, defy odds, defy history, all because he is possessed of a dynamic, almost undefinable, compelling, irresistible popularity?

Whatever Romney's strengths, few people describe him in those terms. If he is that kind of candidate, then he'd better show it during this month's debates, because it takes not just a big leaguer, but an all-star, to beat a sitting president, even a weak one.

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