I’m not sure if it’s actually possible to 1) have the media invest tonight’s debate with any more importance for the Romney campaign than has been done over the last two weeks; 2) come up with another way to lower expectations for both candidates without reducing all of us to fits of giggles; 3) be any more primed for disappointment than all of us – left, right, center – are right now as we are almost certain to see a debate that is probably not going to deliver a knockout blow to Governor Romney, put President Obama on the defensive and the race back into a dead heat or – for the 11 remaining undecided voters in a swing state – illuminate much about what either client plans to do over the next four years.

It is, of course, possible that I’m wrong on any of these points, particularly #3, but statistics are on my side.  Why are nearly all of the most famous moments from Presidential debates from the 70s and 80s?  Because most of the time these events are not particularly memorable and don’t represent turning points in a campaign.

This reality is particularly true when the participants are Barack “No Drama” Obama and W. Mitt “the Robot” Romney.  While different in many ways, both men are generally very skilled at keeping their emotions in check and their talking points firmly in their forebrains.  Couple that with day…and days…and days…of debate camp and the throw down in Denver has all the suspense of two chessmasters replaying a game from the Fischer-Spassky era.  The image of an unscripted and freeflowing debate is just that; an image and not a reality.

None of this, of course, will prevent me from eagerly watching all 90 minutes and then listening to the post-debate analysis on as many channels as my wife will tolerate me surfing.  Here’s what I think we’ll be hearing after the debate:

 

On Obama:

  • Fox: “At various points in the debate it was clear to me that the President was visibly struggling to contain his anger and his actual contempt for Governor Romney.  He never actually let himself lose control, but you could see in his posture and in his eyes that he resents even having to share the stage with the Governor.  In his mind, I guess he thinks his re-election should be by universal acclaim and without having to subject himself to the indignity of having to do things like debate.  I give the President maybe a C+ for what I think we’ll see in the clear light of morning was a mediocre performance at best.  I think you also have to conclude that Obama’s weak performance – coupled with what was a good night for Governor Romney – has once again made this a neck-and-neck race to the finish.”
  • MSNBC: “I think you have to give the president at least a B+ and maybe an A- for his performance tonight.  He’s not a great debater – I know that point has been dismissed as spin but it happens to be true – but he definitely brought his A game tonight.  He looked calm, he looked resolute and – above all – he looked presidential.  He had an easy handle on the facts and figures that back up his positions and he used them to great effect.  His answers were crisp and sharp and had clearly benefited from the intense practice sessions leading up to tonight.  He beat back repeated attacks by Governor Romney without losing his cool and never once looked haughty or impatient.”
  • CNN: “Clearly, he did what he had to do tonight and that was – first and foremost – avoid the sort of gaffes and mistakes that could be a distraction for 4 or 5 news cycles.  We saw a candidate who had clearly practiced and was ready for this event and it showed in his answers and in his body language.  I think his supporters are going to be encouraged by his performance tonight, his detractors will scrutinize every second of the 90 minutes for any advantage they might have missed as it was unfolding in real time and for those few undecided voters who were hoping to hear something to finally close the deal, I’m not sure if they got what they needed in a performance that was long on soundbites and broad rhetoric but short on specifics.”

On Romney:

  • Fox: “Game on!  Romney knew the future of his campaign was riding on the outcome of this debate and it showed.  From the first answer, he took the battle to Obama again and again in a polite, respectful but relentless way that put the president on the defensive and kept him there almost all night long.  What we saw tonight is the Mitt Romney conservatives have been looking for – tough, aggressive, unapologetic for his desire to take the country back from the wrong path it’s been on for the last four years.  I think it was also the kind of performance that independents – who really tuned in on this race for the first time tonight – will find attractive.  I’m confident that the polls coming out of this debate are going to show a race that’s back to deadlocked and maybe even advantage Romney.”
  • MSNBC: “I think tonight’s debate is a microcosm of the challenges that have dogged Governor Romney from Day 1.  Yes, he was prepared, but you’d expect that after spending almost two full weeks over the last month in practice sessions, but once again, there’s that likeability gap.  His performance tonight was so scripted, so rehearsed, so lacking in the authentic moments you hope for in a setting like this, that I think it really adds to the narrative that Mitt Romney is just not terribly likeable.  I don’t think he did himself any fatal damage…there was no repeat of the 47% gaffe that was so troublesome for him in September…but I think the damage is more in terms of a lost opportunity.  The first debate is almost always the most watched and Governor Romney just swung and missed at his last, best chance to change the arc of this campaign in its last month.  From here on out the calendar gets very compressed and the number of people out there who haven’t made up their minds, who haven’t voted already, is shrinking rapidly.”
  • CNN: “Clearly, he did what he had to do tonight and that was – first and foremost – avoid the sort of gaffes and mistakes that could be a distraction for 4 or 5 news cycles.  We saw a candidate who had clearly practiced and was ready for this event and it showed in his answers and in his body language.  I think his supporters are going to be encouraged by his performance tonight, his detractors will scrutinize every second of the 90 minutes for any advantage they might have missed as it was unfolding in real time and for those few undecided voters who were hoping to hear something to finally close the deal, I’m not sure if they got what they needed in a performance that was long on soundbites and broad rhetoric but short on specifics.”

Am I right?  Dunno, but it’ll be fun to watch and find out.
– Austin