10/23/2012 10:18 am ET

2012 Presidential Debates Viewed As Historic By Republicans, Pedestrian By Democrats

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The 2012 presidential debates are over. Were they decisive in a potentially historic way, or simply par for the course, with the same impact debates usually have in a presidential election?

It depended, Monday night, on who you asked.

Before and after the final debate, Democrats played down the overall significance of the three head-to-head matchups between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, and Republicans said they had been seismic.

"I didn't think it was even possible for a debate to change a race as much as the first debate," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. "I really thought that was no longer possible in the 21st century. I was dead wrong."

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, said: "I can't imagine since the time I started paying attention to these things in the '60s that there have been a series of debates, both in the primary, and in the general election, that have had such a significant impact on the race."

The Republican primary debates a year ago did shape that up-and-down race for the nomination. Romney performed well when he needed to in two key Florida debates at the end of January. And it was Romney's strong performance at his first debate with Obama, in Denver on Oct. 3, that many believe reset the race for the White House.

"If [Romney] had performed poorly or it had been a tie, he would be losing," Graham said.

Polling bears this out. Obama was close to running away with the race in late September. He held a four-point lead over Romney in the Pollster.com/Huffington Post average in late September, and was still two points up on the day of the first debate. But Romney pulled slightly ahead a little over a week later, and as of Monday night had a tiny lead in the average. The race is now dead even.

"This round [of debates] was different because we had one debate, the first one, that everybody agrees was so decisive, and at a time when it was important for the Romney campaign that people see him in an unfiltered way," said former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who is expected to get a high-profile job in the administration if Romney wins.

"So in that sense, it's probably unlikely that we'll see a single debate as influential as that in the future," Talent said. "Although who knows."

Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser to Romney, compared the Denver debate to the 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and incumbent President Jimmy Carter, which many believe helped Reagan win that election.

"You had a president that people kind of liked, but whose policies were going, economically and internationally, the wrong way. They stopped listening to the president. They stopped listening to Carter. But then they turned to the opponent, said, 'Well, Ronald Reagan, old guy, actor, Goldwater guy, and doesn't talk too well,'" Kaufman said. "And it took a debate. Reagan wasn't spectacular. But he passed the test."

Fox News analyst Juan Williams said he thought the 2000 campaign between George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore had historical-sized impact, in part because of Gore's incessant sighing.

"The perception was even though he had a superior base of information and knowledge that he somehow came across as rude to Gov. Bush," Williams said in an interview.

Williams said the 2012 debates, as a whole, would rank up there among the most memorable.

"Everything from the high level physical interaction between Romney and Obama in the [second] debate, the fact that people thought it was so intense, like two alpha animals in contest, to the widespread perception that Romney won the first debate and that it moved the polls, this set of debates is going to be remembered," he said.

Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary for Bush, also compared the 2012 debates to 2000, and said there was clear movement in the race after the first Gore vs. Bush matchup at the University of Massachusetts.

"Gore coming out of his convention took the lead over Bush for the first time," Fleischer told The Huffington Post. "Right up to that first debate, Gore had the lead, and it got changed at the sighing debate."

The 2012 debates, Fleischer said, are important mostly because of the first one.

"It was so overwhelming, the victory so big. It was the first exposure," Fleischer said. "He hit it out of the park and Obama flopped. That's profound. That has a lasting impact."

Much of how the 2012 debates are viewed will depend on who wins the election. If Romney wins, the Denver debate could come to be talked about in terms of historical significance in the way that the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, which were the first to be televised, are measured. If Romney loses, Denver will likely be just a footnote in presidential election history.

Obama advisers seemed eager to avoid historical comparisons on Monday night.

"We'll have political scientists write books about it," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. "What I care about is 15 more days to get 270 electoral votes. And I think we're on the pathway to do that."

When asked what he thought about the impact of the debates this year, Beau Biden, the current attorney general of Delaware and son of Vice President Joe Biden, started talking about the fact that his father has taken part in two of the most watched vice presidential debates. When asked a second time about the presidential debates, he clammed up.

"Gosh, I don't know. You'd be a better judge of that than I. But definitely they've been important," Biden said.

Other Obama advisers ceded some ground but argued that the second and third debates were just as important as the first.

"The presidential debates are always important. So I think that we won the last two in our view. Gov. Romney won the first one," said Obama adviser David Plouffe, who immediately after the first debate in Denver told reporters that Romney "was on defense all night long."

Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also acknowledged "the first debate helped Gov. Romney, I don't think there's any doubt about that."

"But the truth is, I think that whatever he got from that debate stopped some time ago," Gibbs said.

Not all Democrats in the spin room after the debate here Monday, however, were political operatives. The debate was focused on foreign policy, and so the Obama campaign made Michelle Flournoy -- a former top Pentagon official for Obama, spoken of as a potential secretary of defense if he gets a second term -- available to talk to reporters.

Flournoy acknowledged that "certainly these debates have probably had more impact on this race than has been the case in many previous elections."

After a series of lulls before each debate during the last month, the race now moves to a two-week sprint, where the candidates and their armies of strategists, operatives, ground troops and money managers will focus on a few key states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and Nevada.

Plouffe displayed no concern over the tightness of the race, and said that whatever impact the debates may have had, he is not surprised by where things stand.

"We think we have the close race we always thought we'd have, with us having, we think, an advantage in the battleground states," Plouffe said. "Not large, but significant."

Kaufman, the Romney adviser, was cautious when asked if the Republican has the momentum.

"I think we're doing well, better than we thought we'd do. We like where we are. The trend lines are good," Kaufman said. "But two weeks is an eternity in the end of a campaign. And we're not going to fall into the same trap they did a month ago thinking they had this thing won. It's close. I think we'll win this thing in the end."



Presidential Debate: The Final Showdown