Beware the Five O’Clock Shadow

If you’re a political enthusiast here in the United States, tonight is the beginning of the endgame for the 2012 presidential election: the first debate.  We’ve seen the two candidates spar from a distance as they put forward their rather different visions for America, but now they get to do it up close and personal….and we’ll be watching.

The presidential debate (and there will be three of them this year) has become engrained in the national consciousness as an accepted part of the election season, but its history is rather short.  The first televised presidential debate did not occur until 1960, and after that not again until 1976.  Legends of Richard Nixon’s poor image in the 1960 debates have continued to haunt candidates ever since, so debates tend to be a high-focus and stressful time for contenders and their teams.

Conventional wisdom and polling suggests that Mitt Romney has the most to gain from the debates, as he is currently consistently behind in most national polls and lags substantially in projected electoral votes.  Even so, it has been suggested that the debates could hold treasure for Obama as well, since a definitive victory would provide him the kind of November margin that could give his next for years a sense of authority and purpose.  We will see what develops.

What is not always encouraging with these events is the kind of maneuvering that surrounds them: pre-packaged zingers, overly rehearsed answers, and the candidates’ setting of expectations so low that any comprehensible performance could be later spun as “good.”  Yet despite all the artifice that can go into what Americans will watch tonight, there will likely be moments of unscripted dialogue, signs of each man’s true thought and personality, and the opportunity for us to understand what they as individuals really believe when pressed and under pressure.  Will there be a free-flowing and open-ended discussion of ideas?  Probably not, but we can dream.

I’m unfortunately going to miss the debates live tonight, but will plan on watching them sometime afterwards and posting my thoughts at that point.

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