Romney has the advantage tonight

But I think Gov. Romney does have an advantage tonight irrespective of the format, because he doesn’t need to improve on his last performance. A town-hall format necessitates a more animated performance than a debate behind lecterns, and the bar the president set for himself in his curiously lethargic first debate is a very easy one to clear. The press will award Obama the most improved player award no matter how Romney performs…

Romney’s answers and demeanor were exquisitely pitched to the sensitivities of genuine independents and that small, but hardy, band of undecided voters. Ask Joe Biden, whose vigorous assault in last week’s vice presidential debate evoked Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” how hard it is to attack an opponent without appearing obnoxious to people for whom politics isn’t a passion. If the president mimics his running mate’s style, he will lose tonight’s debate, and probably the election.

Romney needs to avoid both a major gaffe and walking into a cheap shot like Lloyd Bentsen’s “you’re no Jack Kennedy” humiliation of Dan Quayle. I’m sure the incumbent’s team has scripted several forceful rejoinders to familiar Romney attack lines, and I expect Obama to deliver them with faux good humor to avoid appearing like a bully. Romney could reduce his exposure by using different language and attacks than he used in the last debate and on the stump. But if he gets hit hard, he must respond quickly, without appearing rattled — and do it with a smile.

Romney doesn’t need to elevate his game. He just needs to be as assertive, gracious and unflappable as he was the last time — not an easy task but one we now know he’s capable of achieving.