The tension and expectations have been mounting for days as President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney prepared for their first debate, tonight at 9 Eastern Time in Denver, hosted by Jim Lehrer of PBS.
Pundits and partisans will spin millions of words out of the what the two men say during the 90 minutes allotted to a discussion of domestic policy.
But much of what the two men say will be quickly forgotten. What may live on will be any of those telling and unexpected moments that can reveal a candidate’s character and either set the public at ease about their choice — or do the opposite.
Ronald Reagan famously took the steam out of President Jimmy Carter in the single debate of the 1980 campaign with just four words: “There you go again.”
Almost no one remembers the context of the remark. We had to look it up; it came during an exchange over a Medicare bill that Carter favored but Reagan saw as a step toward socialized medicine.
The phrase seemed to capture Reagan’s aplomb and good humor, endearing him to voters who had been told by the press he was a boob or an ogre or a bit of both.
Walter Mondale needed only three words cribbed from a TV commercial to squelch Gary Hart in a 1984 Democratic primary presidential debate: “Where’s the beef?” He was referring to Hart’s airy references to his “new ideas.”
Democrat Michael Dukakis needed just four words to help doom his candidacy in a debate with George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Asked by reporter Bernard Shaw whether, if his wife were raped and murdered, he would now want the death penalty for the killer, Dukakis replied, with no emotion, “No, I don’t, Bernard.”
Sometimes it not even the sound bites that people remember, but the images — George H.W. Bush checking his watch as an audience member asked about the national debt during the 1992 debate with Bill Clinton; Al Gore sighing and lumbering about the stage during a debate with George W. Bush in 2000.
Polls show almost all those who are likely to vote in November have already made up their minds.
But we urge you to watch the debate and pay attention to the differences between Obama and Romney on the critical issues we face.
We also urge you to watch for those moments that will either seal the deal for you with your candidate or perhaps give you second thoughts.