The general political wisdom is that Presidential debates are rarely, if ever, game-changers. The 2012 debates have already proved to be the exception to that rule.
Prior to the first debate held three weeks ago, President Obama was comfortably ahead in the polls, a sure thing to be re-elected. While the economy is still struggling to move ahead at anything more than a snail's pace, Obama enjoyed the benefits that come with incumbency, and the fact that his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney, seemed to be an out-of-touch rich man's candidate.
All that Obama had to do was point out Romney's huge investment earnings, his questionable off-shore bank accounts, and his leaked speech to donors in which he wrote off 47 per cent of the population as free-loaders, to reinforce this point.
While people are unhappy with Obama's performance as President, they felt at least he was more in touch with the realities of struggle than millionaire-Mitt.
All that changed after the first debate. While the issues that Obama had raised about Mitt have never been fully resolved, people were willing to put them aside because of what they saw in Mitt Romney, and what they didn't see in the President.
While Obama was passive, Romney was engaged. While Obama was sluggish, Romney was fired up. While Obama looked down at his notes, Romney raised his voice, jabbed his finger in Obama's direction, and gave a strong performance, complete with facts and figures as to why a President with such a dismal economic record should not be rewarded with a second term.
People were blown away by what they saw. Mitt was a wholly different guy from what people had seen or imagined him to be. Romney has a history as a business leader of taking over failing companies, firing the ineffective members of the board, and mandating structural changes that turn their fortunes around. On the debate stage, his performance seemed to be demonstrating the promise, that should he be elected, he will do just that with the United States of America. 'I'll take it from here, Mr. President' was the overall impression, while Obama seemed to be a spent man.
And all of a sudden, Romney was off and running.
Polls that had had Romney behind now showed him to have closed the gap with the President. People who had been uncomfortable supporting Romney now felt that he may be just what the country needs to get out of its economic mess.
Debate number 2, therefore, became do or die for Obama. He needed to show that he still wanted the job of President, and that he was willing to fight for it. And fight he did: Obama was aggressive, strong, and passionate. Romney was still a powerful presence, but Obama was the clear winner on the night, especially as a result of his closing arguments slamming Romney for his infamous remarks on the '47 percent'.
But this, like the third and final debate (a snooze fest focusing on foreign policy) has done nothing to stop the Romney surge. According to one poll last week, Romney led Obama by seven points nationally, a figure which if true, would mean a landslide defeat for the President.
The Obama camp are worried. The only card that they have been able to successfully play this election has been the negative attack ads on Romney. But now that the country has seen Romney up close, and many like what they see, by and large they are not buying Obama's pitch anymore. This leaves Obama with not much else to talk about-other than killing Bin Laden, and saving the auto-industry-two noteworthy achievements in and by themselves-but not ones that affect average American citizens, who have seen their incomes decline and cost of living go up during Obama's presidency.
Ronald Reagan famously ended his debate with President Carter in 1980 asking the public whether they were 'better off now, than they were four years ago'. The answer, overwhelmingly for most middle class Americans today, is no, they are not better off. And that means that Mitt Romney, in the final stretch of this campaign, with his strong debate performance behind him, has the edge over Obama. Momentum is with him. He will need to win the key battleground states of Ohio, Virginia and Florida to clinch the Electoral College vote, and win the White House.
If he does so, and Mitt Romney becomes the 45th President, never again will political pundits say that debates don't matter.