Mitt Romney Leaves Nothing to Chance in Prepping for Debate

ABC News’ John Berman ( @johnsberman ) and Emily Friedman ( @EmilyABC ) report:

Mitt Romney might be the Republican front-runner and the man most in the spotlight in tonight’s Republican debate, but his advisers say the other candidates have just as much to lose.

There are a lot of people who have been in this race a long time and have shown no movement,” said one Romney aide perhaps referring to Tim Pawlenty who has been campaigning nationally for some time, but who’s polling numbers have been relatively low.

Then there is the matter of the candidate not even at the debate, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. A Romney aide made sure to point out that Huntsman, who has said he will not compete in the Iowa caucuses, isn’t showing up tonight. “What does it mean for Jon Huntsman that he is not participating given his New Hampshire-or-bust strategy?”

Romney is leaving nothing to chance, he has been participating in debate meetings, teleconferences, and actual mock debates at his campaign’s Boston headquarters . Junior Romney staffers have been playing some — though not all — the other candidates in the mock debates. (Aides would not say which candidates did not earn stand-ins.)

Romney is fully aware that as the front-runner he might become something of a target for the others on stage, especially on health care, “but there is nothing we can do to control that.”

The Romney staff says the former Massachusetts governor will try to remain focused on the issues, “most important in this election, and that means jobs and the economy.” Perhaps anticipating that Romney’s record on jobs as a sometimes cost-cutting CEO and governor might come under attack, an aide said that Romney “has had both successes and failures and has learned from all of them.”

Staffers added that jobs and the economy are “his specialty” and that Romney, clad in “relaxed attire” upon arriving in Manchester, has seemed laid-back in the hours leading up to the debate.

Asked what viewers can expect from Romney tonight, spokesman Ryan Williams told ABC News, “Gov. Romney will discuss why he is the best candidate to create jobs, fix our economy and defeat President Obama.”

“Voters are looking for a candidate who will provide economic leadership and return fiscal sanity to Washington. Gov. Romney will explain why he is the candidate to do that,” said Williams.

Four years ago, Romney was also a favorite target for his Republican opponents, and occasionally looked irritated on stage as they attacked. “No one likes to get picked on,” said a Romney staffer involved in both the 2008 effort and this year’s campaign. But in this election, the Romney team believes it will be easier to pivot focus on the incumbent Democratic president; a luxury they did not have last time.

One other comparison to four years ago? Far, far fewer Romney advisers are involved in debate preparation — roughly a third of the 2008 staff — another example of Romney’s more streamlined campaign. Advisers involved this time include 2008 holdovers Eric Fehrnstrom, Beth Myers, Matt Rhoades, Peter Flaherty, ad-men Russ Schrieffer and Stuart Stevens, communications director Gail Gitcho, and policy director Lanhee Chen. Four years ago, the debate prep team also included the likes of campaign lawyers Ben Ginsberg and Barbara Comstock, and list of names that goes on and on.

The biggest challenge for the Romney team during the debate might be keeping their focus on the stage rather than the Boston Garden, where the Bruins will be playing game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. With many staffers loyal Boston fans, many have made plans to Tivo the game.

One staffer even joked that the game is making the Romney team more nervous than the debate.

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