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Why the First Debate Was the Only One That Really Counted

Much of the country will be watching tonight’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. Both sides are playing, as they have before each of the previous two encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney as well as the vice presidential tangle, the expectations game. And on an evening that will be devoted to foreign policy, both the president and his challenger are primed to exploit each other’s weaknesses and will hope to be proclaimed the victor by the spinners and the media. But if the polls are any judge, the odds are not much will be altered by the debate no matter which man comes off better.

Last week’s second debate was scored a clear victory for the president due to his livelier performance and Romney’s mistakes in the town hall format. But unless you believe the one outlier poll (Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll), there doesn’t seem to have been any bounce for the president as a result of his getting the better of Romney. That means that even if Obama can repeat the same trick tonight, with Romney continuing to blunder, it probably won’t make a difference. That leaves us with the question as to why the first debate earlier this month in Denver proved so decisive. Was it that it was really more one-sided for Romney than Obama’s win at Hofstra University? Though it was, that doesn’t seem to be the answer, since if it was just a question of a margin of victory then Obama would have gotten more out of the second debate than he received.

Rather, the answer has to do with the relationship between the way Romney came across and the way Democrats had campaigned against him for the last year. While the president’s sleepwalk through the first debate seemed to betray his contempt for the process as well as for his opponent, the real news there was that by coming across as a reasonable, intelligent and well spoken candidate, Romney effectively undid several months and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Democratic ads that sought to portray him as an extremist, hateful plutocrat who tortured dogs, killed factory workers and destroyed the lives of others more or less for fun.

For all of our intense attention as to who is winning the debates on points and how strong their arguments may be or how many mistakes they make, the real test of these evenings is whether the candidate comes across as a plausible president of the United States. Since so much Democratic effort went into painting Romney as implausible if not completely unsuitable for the presidency, his Denver showing made it clear that the Obama campaign had overspent on hyperbole that was easily disproved if not completely debunked.

As Woody Allen is often quoted as saying, 80 percent of life is just showing up. Romney didn’t just show up in Denver. He showed up and showed the country what he was: an intelligent, fact-driven technocrat with some strong convictions about the economy and limited government as well as an appealing personality.

Having established this, it doesn’t really matter if he screwed up the Libya question last week or even if he does it again tonight–though if he does it will drive his campaign, if not the entire Republican Party, crazy.

As with the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, the GOP candidate has destroyed the caricature that his opponents so carefully constructed. This hasn’t won him the election outright, since this close race can still go either way. But it does illustrate why the first debate will probably turn out to be the only one that really counts.

That shouldn’t stop Americans from watching the foreign policy tangle since it gives the country the opportunity to hear the candidates expound on the issues that are truly the primary responsibility of the president. But now that the American people know Romney is a reasonable alternative, it isn’t likely that anything he or Obama can say in Boca will change their minds.



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