Republicans don’t like to talk much about it now, but many watched George W. Bush’s presidential debates in 2000 and 2004 holding their breath. They were scared Bush would make a major mistake, even against undistinguished competition like Al Gore and John Kerry, and for many Republicans watching the debate meant counting down the minutes. Half an hour down, no problem. An hour down, no problem. Just a few minutes to go, and Bush is still standing. Of course, in the end, Bush won twice, but that didn’t ease Republican worries at the time.
In 2008, John McCain was no debate superstar, either. By the time the debates took place, then-candidate Barack Obama had pulled ahead of McCain — who had lost a step from his 2000 form — and few Republicans watched the debates with a great sense of hope.
Going back farther, to 1996, many Republicans watched everything about the Bob Dole campaign with a mixture of disappointment and disgust. And back even farther, to 1992, Republicans don’t have particularly good memories of the first President Bush’s debates in a losing re-election effort.
All of which is why Republicans were so cheered — ecstatic in some corners — by Mitt Romney’s strong performance in Denver Wednesday night. Romney was focused, sharp, aggressive, and well-paced in a way that no Republican had been in a presidential debate in a very long time. Romney simply beat Obama every step of the way.
In addition, many in the GOP have been deeply worried by Romney’s small but consistent deficit in the polls versus the president. They viewed the debates, especially the first debate, as Romney’s best, and perhaps his last, chance to shake up the race. Maybe that will happen and maybe it won’t — but Romney’s victory in Denver raised Republican hopes in a way they haven’t been in a long time.