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Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The Zinger candidacy

WASHINGTON -- The Zinger is an unwholesome confection.
One serving of this Hostess snack, which is basically a Devil Dog or a Twinkie with icing, has 35 percent of your daily allowance of saturated fat -- and some trans fat thrown in for good measure. The first ingredient listed is sugar, followed later by corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor, glucose and polypropylene glycol.
"With a name like Zingers, you might be wondering about this treat's intentions," the Hostess website says.
But there's no mystery, really. The Zinger is all empty calories.
It is for this reason that I savored the following morsel, reported by my friend Peter Baker and his New York Times colleague Ashley Parker over the weekend: "Mr. Romney's team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August."
Probably the Republican nominee has been equipped not with packaged snacks but with that other type of zinger, the one-line putdown commonly used in presidential debates. Unfortunately, the nutritional value of this zinger is the same as its namesake confection. At a time when even his fondest supporters are pleading for more substance, Mitt Romney is giving them the political equivalent of junk food. His has been the Zinger candidacy -- all sugary platitudes, no protein.
Sample his speech Monday night in Colorado:
Obama "doesn't just like picking winners and losers," Romney said. "He likes picking losers."
"We've had 43 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent, and what does the president have to say to all this? He says 'forward.' I think 'forewarned' is a better term."
"He's out of ideas, he's out of excuses, and on November 6th you're going to put him out of office."
"He's making us more and more like Europe. I don't want to be like Europe. Europe doesn't work in Europe."
It was quite a sugar rush. But those seeking some fiber -- such as what, precisely, Romney would do differently if he were president -- left hungry. He only promised a "five-point plan" that would magically "create 12 million jobs." Seven million of these 12 million jobs would be created by a tax package that "brings down the tax rate" by eliminating deductions. Which deductions? Such ingredients aren't listed.
The poor diet caught up with Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, when he took questions from supporters in Iowa on Tuesday. Ryan began, as usual, with a few a la carte items from the zinger menu:
"President Obama said that he can't change Washington from the inside," he said. "If this president can't change Washington, then we need to change presidents."
"If all this borrowing and all this taxing and all this money printing and all this regulating worked, we would be entering a golden age along with Greece," he added.
Ryan also fired off a line based on Obama's "you didn't build that" remark.
Zing, double zing and triple zing.
But that didn't satisfy a woman in a Green Bay Packers shirt. "Where are the answers?" she asked. "I mean, why aren't (you) more specific. ... You know, what are your plans?"
"Let me give you some specific answers," Ryan said. But he served up just a couple of nibbles -- approving the Keystone XL pipeline project, consolidating federal job training programs -- and instead repeated the broad goals of the "five-point plan."
The debates offer Romney his best chance to change the trajectory of a race that seems to be favoring the incumbent. But Romney's inclination was to stick with the zing thing.
A well-landed zinger can be memorable, such as Ronald Reagan's promise not to exploit Walter Mondale's "youth and inexperience," Mondale's "Where's the beef?" or Lloyd Bentsen's "You're no Jack Kennedy" to Dan Quayle. But for each of those, there are many failed attempts in which a candidate's line sounds forced and canned -- a risk increased by Romney memorizing zingers fed to him by aides.
Obama has been trying to blunt Romney's zings. "I know folks in the media are speculating already on who's going to have the best zingers," he said Sunday. "What I'm most concerned about is having a serious discussion."
Asking Romney to give up his favorite snack food in favor of a healthy give-and-take? There you go again, Mr. President.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is

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