Presidential debate nights have been nerve wracking for the GOP since the first of two Reagan-Mondale debates of 1984.
The first debate did not go well for the Gipper that year, as he looked and sounded tired, and, some said, old and confused.
Reagan came back with a very strong performance in the second show-down with the former Vice President. "I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” the president declared. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
In the days leading up to that come-back debate, Republicans across the country fretted that a second bad debate with Mondale could be a replay of the 1976 Ford-Carter fiasco that centered on then President Ford declaring there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, or another Kennedy-Nixon game changer.
In the many debates since then –the first Bush against Dukakis and then Clinton, the Clinton v. Dole debates, W's showdowns with Gore and then Kerry and the McCain-Obama matches—every one of them began with Republicans fearing the worst and hoping that their campaign was still viable after the lights went down.
Sometimes the GOP standard-bearer pulled out a win, and sometimes he lost.
But every debate began with the Republican as the underdog.
Will 2012 be different?
If the nominee is Mitt Romney, his string of impressive debate performances thus far in the campaign will reassure Republicans that, finally, debates are opportunities rather than traps.
If Herman Cain somehow managed to win the most improbable presidential nomination campaign of modern times, he would bring great strengths to the biggest political stage of all.
Governor Perry has had a rough string of debates, but if he wins through to the nomination it will be because he figured out the format and deployed his charisma and authenticity to make it work for him.
And any of these three would benefit from the rapidly falling stock of President Obama the (non) communicator.
Thursday’s exchanges with the White House press corps was a new rhetorical low for the president as he struggled to respond to basic and obvious questions about Iran’s attack on America. Two questions –one from Fox News’ Ed Henry and one from CNN’s Jessica Yellin—took the president almost 13 minutes to respond to, of which nearly three minutes were absorbed in “ahs,” “uhms,” and “ands.”
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