So Obama either punted last night or straight up lost. The message is still being spun and the pollsters are still in the field, so it's difficult to see how significant this loss will be.
Still, there have been a long line of incumbent presidents who bombed their first debate.
Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton and Bush all had middling to bad receptions after the first debate as an incumbent seeking re-election.
But if Obama wants to recover and stage a comeback, he's got to look to one of them in particular.
In his first debate against Walter Mondale, Reagan lost, badly. People started asking if his age had dulled his mental sharpness.
Mondale had hit him hard with this line:
Mr. President, you said, 'There you go again.' ... You remember the last time you said that? ... You said it when President Carter said you were going to cut Medicare, and you said, 'Oh, no, there you go again, Mr. President.' And what did you do right after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare.
And Reagan didn't have a response. Mondale had come off of a tenacious primary against Sen. Gary Hart, and was a qualified debater.
So what did Reagan do to come back?
First, he assessed why he had gone so wrong.
"I think that an incumbent is ... going to be automatically tagged as not having done well because he didn't destroy someone."
Then in the second debate, he killed it. Just as people were growing worried about the President's historic age, Reagan came out bold and swinging with this legendary quip:
"I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
It was also the Foreign Policy debate, so Reagan parlayed a strength of his to a victory.
The race isn't over, and Romney didn't crush anyone. Reagan said it best — everyone expects the rusty incumbent to stamp out the challenger. It's not going to happen. If there weren't expectations either way, last night may have been a draw.
If Obama wants to seal this election win from behind a podium, the ball is in his court alone. He's got to recover and rebound in the next debate.
Still, Obama needs to get a Red Bull into his system for next time, because former incumbents with a bad second debate — Ford, H.W. Bush, and Carter come to mind — don't tend to get their second term.
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