Four years later, it was George H.W. Bush who looked weak and frustrated. He was clearly irritated that he had to share the debate stage not only with Bill Clinton, but also with third-party candidate Ross Perot. Then, at one point, Bush glanced at his watch as if he were bored or impatient. He was no aggressor that night.
Then there are those candidates who are "aggressive" but not the "aggressors." They are determined, but not upbeat and smooth. When Bob Dole ran for president in 1996, he had already earned a reputation as being a political pit bull on behalf of Gerald Ford when the two ran as the Republican ticket in 1976. Dole hadn't a prayer of being the aggressor against Bill Clinton. He was too much on the defense. Clinton breezed into the White House.
There are assorted ways to be the "aggressor." George W. Bush had a pithy and somewhat smug style in his debates with Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Gore came unraveled. He could be heard sighing out loud and trying to interrupt the unflappable Bush in a series of debates that took Gore from the lead to a photo-finish loss. Gore was too aggressive, and he paid the price.
Following a debate against John Kerry in 2004, Bush was accused by some of having a device on him that somehow fed him answers. But the "jacket bulge" theory never gained traction. And despite Bush's having scowled in the first debate, he managed to skate through all the debates more or less unscathed. He was re-elected.
Barack Obama in 2008 was the aggressor before his debates against John McCain even started. McCain wanted to cancel the first debate. He argued that the economic crisis that had unfolded just days earlier required him to stay in Washington. He finally agreed to debate, but most observers gave the edge to Obama. He seemed better prepared.
One can argue that the leader in the national polls before the start of the presidential debates usually wins the November election. But that view leaves out the perilous things that can happen in the heat of a debate. Recall Reagan's first, ugly performance against Mondale, or major blunders like the one by Dukakis.
Watch for the "aggressor" in the upcoming Obama-Romney debates. And beware of any candidate who gets too "aggressive."