The real reason we watch debates: To see how the candidates operate under pressure

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins

It is often noted by pundits that presidential debates don’t seem to do much to sway voters on the issues that the candidates actually talk about. That stands to reason: A person need only follow the news or get on the internet to learn where the candidates stand on particular issues. In that respect, debates are redundant.

The real value of the debates is that they offer voters a rare opportunity to see the respective candidates operate under real high-pressure, no-margin-for-error situations. As Herman Cain pointed out in his own inimitable fashion, you do not necessarily need to know who is the president of Uzbekistan. But how you respond to the question can be telling.

Mitt Romney’s performance in Wednesday’s debate was strong. He was sharp, knowledgeable, confident and never rattled even in the face of attacks. While he had obviously put a lot of effort into preparing, he also came across as somebody for whom this level of focus and dedication is not unusual. He even seemed to be enjoying himself.

President Obama on the other hand often seemed uncertain and at times was clearly struggling for the words. One could practically see the gears crashing in his head as he struggled through some of his answers. Astoundingly, he never brought up Romney’s 47 percent gaffe, or Bain Capital or his tax returns despite the fact that those had been the focus of his campaign. He at one point even asked moderator Jim Lehrer if they could please move along to the next topic.

He was also clearly thrown off by the crowd’s quietness, being far too used to speaking before friendly, even adoring, throngs.

Liberals hoping that news organization fact-checkers will be able to save Obama are deluding themselves (and not just because the fact-checkers themselves can be unreliable). Obama’s real problem was that he even though he is already the president he did not project gravitas. Romney did.

In this Romney was clearly aided by the Republican Party’s lengthy primary and his prior failure to win the nomination in 2008. He not only had lots of debate preparation but he is used to facing tough audiences and dealing with setbacks.

Obama has had few such experiences to toughen him up. His only electoral loss was a failure to win a Democratic primary in a House race early in his career. He won his Illinois Senate seat by facing off against Republican loose cannon Alan Keyes, who was hobbled by both being a carpetbagger to the state and insane.

True, Obama had a prolonged primary fight against Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2008. But they had virtually identical platforms so their debates mostly dwelled on the minutia of their healthcare plans. Meanwhile Clinton was already hobbled by her support for the Iraq war.

The 2008 GOP nominee was the aged John McCain, who had to run during the height of the backlash against President George W. Bush and reacted to the implosion of the markets with a baffling decision to suspend his campaign and return to Congress.

On Wednesday night, for one of the first times in his otherwise charmed political career, Obama faced a determined, skilled and experienced opponent. He didn’t handle it well. The question now is how big of a difference this will make.

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