Save the date. October 3, 2012, will decide the Presidential election. At the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will face off in the first of three debates. Most voters only watch the first debate, so the pressure will be on to make a good initial impression. Neither candidate is at ease with the format, but each cannot afford to flub a line or have an off-night.
The election is two months away and yet neither Obama, nor Romney have really defined themselves. The person in the street cannot recite from memory the kind of bland, frequent sloganeering that Presidential campaigns usually produce. Twenty years ago, the oft-heard refrain was "it's the economy, stupid". Sixteen years ago, President Clinton spoke over and over about "building a bridge to the 21st Century".
In what has been a spectacularly boring election cycle, a former President made a more effective case for re-election than the candidate himself. Usually, the public is aware of what most of the time are very basic opening arguments well before early September. Rarely, if ever, does it take the pomp and circumstance, plus the visual saturation of a convention to build a case for the American people. Incongruously, the GOP and the Democratic party have waited as long as humanely possible to take off the gloves.
Candidate Obama, four years ago, was at first an uninspiring debater. Early in the primary season, he tended to drone on monotonously and get lost in his own rhetoric. John Edwards, prior to his disgrace, reached out to the future President during a brief commercial break at one early debate. Edwards implored Obama to focus. Of course, back then, the junior Senator from Illinois was thirty percentage points down and a longshot at best.
A unexpected and grueling primary fight with Hillary Clinton gave Obama several opportunities to improve his form. While he clearly made substantial progress, the eventual President could never be confused as a natural verbal jouster. In thirty day's time, we'll see how Professor Obama matches up against Mitt Romney, whose strong suit is most certainly not extemporaneous public speaking.
Presidential elections prior to now have been decided by face-to-face matchups. President Gerald Ford came all the way back from almost certain defeat in 1976, only to stubbornly insist in a debate that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. The gaffe and his refusal to admit that he goofed may well have done in his bid to win a full term.
Four years later, history often does not report just how close the Carter/Reagan race was until its bitter end. A majority of voters wanted to cast their ballots for the former California governor, but weren't entirely sure about it until right at the end. The debates shored up support for the Republican challenger, leading Americans to desert the unpopular Carter in droves. All they needed was assurance, in their minds, that they were making the right decision.
Now, in 2012, voters are confused about the wisdom of changing horses in midstream. That being said, Carter comparisons are only useful to a degree, for anyone's cause. A race that has been fairly tight for months will likely stay this way until Election Day. The impressions the American people will form of both President Obama and Governor Romney, podium to podium, will stay with them all the way to the ballot box.