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.”
The senior producer of my radio show, Duane, took the time to grab all of the stumbles in these two questions and string them back-to-back, which we played a couple of times. The audience was at first disbelieving that the tape didn’t make use of repeats, but it didn’t. Larry O’Connor of Breitbart.tv posted the audio and the disbelieving comments began to roll in. Even the president’s opponents couldn’t believe the lack of preparation and the utter lack of ability to deliver a message to either the Iranians or the American people.
Certainly the president will rally to give a great convention speech in Charlotte next year, and he stumps as well as the best of them, using the sing-song cadence of an experienced campaigner and organizer.
But the fall debates will matter a great deal and he dare not run from them, not with as disastrous a record as he has compiled which will call for a daily dose of "blame Bush" even as he runs against Romney or Cain or Perry.
Listen to his answers in any context when he cannot use a crowd to prop up his pauses or cover his confusion. They betray a loss of confidence, an awareness that everyone has figured out he is in way, way over his head.
Like a golfer with the yips or a singer whose voice has shattered, the president's fabled ability to win any audience is revealed every day as, well, a fable.
And as a result, the GOP will be looking forward to the next round of presidential debates.