If Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney fails to come away with a win at the first presidential debate at the University of Denver next month, the former Massachusetts governor could find his candidacy abandoned by GOP moneymen and chieftains in much the same way that Bob Dole was in 1996, former Gov. Ed Rendell said today.
A loss or a draw means that "the Republican powers-that-be will give up the ship," and withdraw their financial and political support, Rendell said during a speech to the Pennsylvania Press Club..
"There's some talk of giving up the ship in Republican circles right now," the former two-term governor-turned-MSNBC pundit said. "When I say give up the ship, all the super-PAC money that's out there ... will go almost 100 percent to Congressional and and Senatorial races."
A Rasmussen Reports poll released this week showed Obama with a 51-39 percent advantage over Romney, up from the 48 percent to 44 percent lead he held in late July. The Rasmussen survey of 500 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
"The key for Romney campaign has got to be the first debate," Rendell said. "The first debate is upon us fairly soon. That's really Gov. Romney's last, best chance, He can turn the dynamic around in the first debate. There's no question about that."
Rendell acknowledged concerns about polling questions and methodology, but "when there are definitive trend lines, that means something," he said. "And the definitive trend over the last 2 to2-1/2 weeks since the Democratic convention is that President Obama is increasing his lead, not only in the battleground states where he always led, but nationally as well."
But "a good Romney performance in the debate, a game-changer, is not out of the question," Rendell noted.
While gaffe-prone on the stump, Romney does "very well in debates. He was a good strong debater. He's disciplined. He follows directions. He can compartmentalize things into 90, 120-second answers. It's a good format. And, of course, he really gets the benefit of looking and sounding presidential," Rendell said.
That's in contrast to Obama, "who is one of the great orators of our time," but "is not quite as good at debates. If you recall the Clinton/Obama debates, then-Sen. Clinton won almost all of them except for one. There's a chance Gov. Romney will do well and maybe even have a game-changer. If he doesn't, it will snowball rapidly."
Rendell also advised Democrats against getting too confident of polling margins.
"I preach this every day -- we have to worry about turnout," he said. "Even if President Obama is winning the state by nine, 10 or 11-points, that could affect the attorney general's race it could affect congressionla races. That's our worry."
In wide-ranging remarks and a later question-and-answer period, Rendell took on topics as varied as state support for public education and the controversial voter identification law.
Rendell netted laughs from the crowd when he called House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, "courageous" for remarks he made to GOP loyalists in June that the law would deliver the state for Romney.
"He did a very courageous thing," Rendell joked. "He told the truth."
A version of this story first reported on Micek's Capitol Ideas blog.