US Presidential Election 2012

Romney versus Obama: let the television debates begin

Mitt Romney hopes to reignite his campaign in his first televised debate with Barack Obama. History suggests style wins over substance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 2:50am

There is a theory among US political strategists that presidential debates may not be enough to win or lose a White House election, but they can certainly turn momentum around.

And a change in momentum is precisely what Republican contender Mitt Romney needs after a bruising few weeks that have seen President Barack Obama consolidate an albeit narrow lead of 3.5 per cent in national polls as the election race enters the closing stretch.

For Romney, tonight's debate in Denver, Colorado, - is a chance to "close the deal" with Republican and independent voters, many of whom are saying he must put flesh on not just the bones of his personality, but also his policies.

Democrat Obama may be running a gritty campaign that is seeing him build leads in swing states that could prove crucial on November 6, but he remains vulnerable amid lingering domestic hardship and fresh troubles in the Middle East. For all his soaring rhetoric in set-pieces, Obama has never been accused of being a natural debater, preferring to take the high road to protect what some critics say is a thin political skin. A slew of recent talk-show appearances, however, show a more relaxed figure.

It is in tight races that debates can take on a life all their own, producing a gladiatorial, "fight night" atmosphere in the finest traditions of US political blood sport. For all the calculus deployed in presidential campaigns, not to mention tightly choreographed public events, debates introduce rare spontaneity into the race.

The 52-year history of presidential debates is studded with moments of blunder and gaffe - by incumbent presidents who should have known better, and by contenders all-too-desperate to chance their arm. Even a pregnant sigh, or a glance at a watch at the wrong moment, have been enough to damage a cause.

For momentum, look to the 1976 match-up between unelected Republican incumbent Gerald Ford and the insurgent Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Going into the debate, Ford was clawing his way back into contention after Carter, a born-again Christian, faced widespread criticism after he told Playboy magazine of having "lusted in my heart".

Yet under the spotlight, Ford blew a question about the Soviet Union's influence, suggesting "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe". Even though many commentators gave Ford the debate, his blunder grew in following days and the momentum was all Carter's, eventually carrying the Democrat to the White House. Carter would be little match for the Hollywood assurance of Republican Ronald Reagan four years later.

The first debate was in 1960 between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon - also the tightest of races. While those who heard it on radio later said they were impressed by 'Tricky Dick's' grasp of the issues, TV viewers were struck instead by Nixon's sweaty pallor and five o'clock shadow - a stark contrast to JFK's tan after a spell on the hustings in California.

Even though he would go on to win the 1968 and 1972 elections, Nixon would never agree to another debate.

George W. Bush, then Texas governor, squared off against Vice-President Al Gore in a similarly close race in 2000. Policy maestro Gore was expected to trounce Bush, whose public utterances were then compared with watching a drunk cross an icy street. Yet as Bush stayed stubbornly on message - a tactic he would deploy effectively against John Kerry four years later - Gore lost the opening salvo with a series of heavy sighs, eye rolls and head shakes whenever Bush made a point.

The encounter served as a reminder that debates are as much about style as substance. "I don't want to be the world's policeman," Bush said, words that would hang heavily in the post-September 11 world. "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we are a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us."

As Professor Alan Schroeder, presidential scholar at America's Northeastern University, put it: "We remember visual impressions from debates more than we remember specific words."

The argument in Denver will be devoted to domestic policy, and will be followed by further debates on October 16 and 22. Vice-President Joe Biden takes on his Republican rival, Paul Ryan, on October 11.

Historians know the first debate can help restart a faltering campaign. Certainly Romney's supporters hope so. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of his outspoken backers, puts it this way: "He's going to lay out his vision for America … and this whole race will turn upside down on Thursday morning."

Additional reporting by Associated Press