By CNN's Jack Cafferty:
Three presidential debates in the history books. So now what?
After all the hype by the media, the expectations games played by both campaigns, lowering the bar for their guy, raising the bar for the other guy, the three 90-minute sessions themselves, the post-game spin by both sides and all the talking heads on television. After all that, here's what we know:
Mitt Romney did himself some good. Maybe even a lot of good.
Headed into that first debate, some had already written Romney's political obituary. They thought the race was President Obama's to lose. And that's just what he did in that first debate. He tried to throw it all away.
Regardless of who wins the election, one of the most memorable moments of this campaign will likely be President Obama's failure to show up for that debate.
The president's dismal, un-presidential and uninterested performance combined with Mitt Romney's strong showing shook this race to its core. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wisely predicted beforehand, that first debate did in fact turn the race "upside down."
Ever since that moment, as the polls turned against President Obama, he's been playing catch up.
The president came prepped for the remaining debates. He went on the offense against Romney and held his own. However, these last two face-offs didn't provide a clear winner like the debacle in Denver did.
What remains to be seen is whether the president can stop the bleeding and undo the image that he left on the 70 million Americans who watched that first debate.
We'll find out in two weeks.
Here’s my question to you: Now that the debates are history, how much did they matter?
Interested to know which ones made it on air?
Jack is out of the office today but will return tomorrow with the Cafferty File.
Two down, one to go.
That's the count when it comes to the number of presidential debates before Election Day.
While the debates offer the voters a rare chance to see the candidates face to face, and tens of millions of Americans are tuning in, these events are almost always a triumph of style over substance.
It's all about show business. But that's not surprising, because that's what we're all about: Real housewives, the Kardashians, Honey Boo Boo, you name it. The stuff that contaminates our TV screens night after night for the most part is garbage - reality shows, game shows. Politicians fit right in.
And the debates can sort of be like watching a puppet show. You have the handlers pulling the candidates' strings. You have coaches, contributors, advisers putting words in the candidates' mouths. And then after the fact, we have these same folks in the "spin room" telling us what we saw during the debates. If I watched the debate, I really don't need some political hack telling me what I saw.
The candidates never give direct answers to the questions. Instead they maneuver behind a safe barricade of campaign talking points and then just wind up talking about what they want, not the question that was asked.
In President Obama's case, it's a good thing there was more than one debate.
But now voters might be scratching their heads wondering which one was the real president - the docile, seemingly disinterested fellow who showed up at the first debate, or the scrappy, energized man desperate for another four years who showed up at the second one.
Maybe the third one will give us the answer.
As for Romney, there's always the chance he'll show up to the last debate with binders full of flip-flops.
Here’s my question to you: How many presidential debates are enough?
Tune in to the Situation Room at 5pm to see if Jack reads your answer on air.
And, we love to know where you’re writing from, so please include your city and state with your comment.
President Obama did better at the debate Tuesday night, but he's a long way from sealing the deal for a second term.
For example, Obama is one of the most polarizing presidents this country has ever seen.
According to a Gallup Poll, so far in October, a whopping 90% of Democrats approve of the job the president is doing, compared with only 8% of Republicans.
That's an 82-point gap in party approval ratings a month before the election and figures to be the largest gap for any incumbent in recent history.
George W. Bush had an 80-point gap in party approval the October before the election, while Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan all had gaps below 70 points.
And the trend is not his friend. Obama's ratings have become more polarized each year he's been in office. Perhaps not surprising when he pushed through measures like Obamacare with no Republican support. Also controversial are his record government spending and what critics claim are Obama's efforts to grow big government.
Gallup points out that it's not unusual for a president's ratings to be the most polarized their fourth year in office, right before the election.
For now, George W. Bush's fourth year is still the most polarized of any presidential year since they started keeping track in the 1950s.
But Bush and Obama share near-universal approval from their own party and a near-universal disapproval from the other party.
Another explanation is that feelings about Obama – and Bush before him – are partly a reflection of our hyperpartisan culture in which every issue degrades into a battle between left and right.
Here’s my question to you: Why is the country so sharply divided when it comes to President Obama?
Tomorrow night's presidential debate is a make-or-break moment for President Barack Obama.
After that dismal showing in the first debate against Mitt Romney, the president better bring his A game if he wants a second term.
Writing in The Daily Beast, Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan says that the president's "main challenge for re-election in the final stretch is Obama himself."
Sullivan suggests that Obama threw away the momentum after the first debate, calling the president's performance "so lazy, so feckless and so vain it was almost a dare not to vote for him." Ouch. Remember this is a supporter talking.
But he's onto something: Romney has seen gains in both national polls and battleground states since the first debate.
He now leads the president 48% to 47% in CNN's poll of polls. Perhaps even more telling: After months of voters finding Obama more likable than Romney, a new poll of likely voters shows the two men virtually tied on likability.
According to Sullivan, it will take a lot of "intelligence, fire and argument" for Obama to turn this thing around, and it won't be enough for Obama to just break even with Romney in the two remaining debates.
That brings us back to tomorrow's night debate, which will be moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley.
While the president insists his debate preparations are "going great," the town-hall format may make it even tougher for him to win.
No doubt the president will have to come out strong against Romney, but he also needs to show he can connect with the voters in the hall and those watching at home. It's a tricky balancing act, and above all else, Obama will have to avoid those long and boring professorial answers.
Here’s my question to you: What is President Obama's greatest challenge at tomorrow night's debate?
While President Obama talks about Big Bird on the campaign trail, the real topic begging for answers is what happened in Benghazi on September 11.
But the murder of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans amid what appears to be insufficient security is not something this administration wants to talk about.
Consider this: Up until today, there had been no White House press briefing for more than two weeks.
Meanwhile, it took the FBI three weeks to arrive on the scene in Benghazi after that deadly attack, allegedly for safety reasons. Three weeks.
This has rightfully raised concerns about sensitive documents being left unsecured at the compound. The State Department insists no classified documents were left on the premises. Really? A CNN reporter walked right into the consul and retrieved the ambassador's journal three days after the attack. What else was left behind?
The administration continues to change its story about what happened and why. Initially it said the attacks were a reaction to a film made by an American mocking the Prophet Mohammed.
More than a week later the administration called it a terrorist attack, potentially linked to al Qaeda, after it was learned a Libyan security official warned of a possible attack three days before it happened.
Now we learn that repeated requests for additional security were ignored.
Finally, the Benghazi timeline shows there were no protests before the attack.
There's a reason the president doesn't want to talk about Benghazi: The way it was handled before and after the murders is a disgrace.
Expect Mitt Romney to ask the president about all this when a future debate turns to foreign policy.
Here’s my question to you: Why won't President Obama talk about Benghazi, instead of Big Bird?
The stakes couldn't be higher for Thursday's vice presidential debate.
After the debacle that was President Obama's performance at the first debate last week, expect interest to be especially high when Joe Biden and Paul Ryan face off in Kentucky for their only debate.
At this point, in the face of plummeting poll numbers for the president, the Obama campaign must rely on Joe Biden to turn this thing around. Good luck with that.
Look for Biden to come out swinging, hitting hard on issues like Romney's "47%" comment, Ryan's controversial budget plan and his proposal to change Social Security.
As one Republican adviser tells Politico, Biden will bring his "proverbial nunchucks and brass knuckles" to the debate.
Of course, this has got to leave a lot of nervous Democrats, because with Joe Biden, you never know what you're going to get. While Biden is a seasoned debater who connects well with voters, he also tends to say dumb things from time to time. Just a couple of months ago, the White House had to sweep up after Biden after he told a largely black audience in Virginia that Republicans "would put y'all back in chains."
Ryan will no doubt ask Biden about foreign policy, including the murder of an American ambassador in Benghazi, more than 40 months of 8%-plus unemployment, a $16 trillion deficit, no federal budget for the last three years and so on.
There's also the risk that in trying to make up for Obama's weak debate, Biden comes across as too aggressive.
As for Ryan, he says the pressure is on him after Romney's strong showing last week. Ryan says he expects Biden to launch at him "like a cannon ball," describing Biden as a gifted, extremely experienced and proven debater. Really?
This is must-see TV Thursday night.
Here’s my question to you: In light of the results of the first debate, how important is the vice presidential debate?
If President Obama had been a Broadway show last night, it would have closed after one performance.
Even the president's staunchest supporters were baffled by his lackluster effort.
MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked, "What was he doing?"
Democratic strategist James Carville said, "Romney came in with a chainsaw."
Commentator Andrew Sullivan said, "This was a disaster... He choked... He may even have lost the election tonight."
CNN did a poll of watchers right after the debate that showed by a margin of almost 3-to-1 – 67% to 25% - that they thought Mitt Romney won the first debate.
What happened to the mesmerizing president who captivated audiences in Berlin and Cairo more than three years ago?
Where was the visionary who saw a path forward for the country that was so compelling he became the first African-American president in our history?
Watching the debate last night, I got the impression Obama didn't want to be there. He seemed annoyed at times and disengaged. And he allowed Romney to get back in the race big time.
And when the debates shift to foreign policy, it's not likely to get any easier for the president.
The Middle East is a tinderbox. The murder of an American ambassador in Libya goes begging for an explanation as to why repeated requests for additional security at our consulate in Benghazi were turned down. And the White House won't answer questions about it except to say the FBI is conducting an investigation.
That's not nearly enough.
Here’s my question to you: Why did President Obama do so poorly at last night's debate?
If it's October and it's a presidential election year, then it's just about time for a so-called “October surprise.”
That means any late-breaking event that can change the outcome of the race.
For example: Twelve days before the 1972 presidential election, Henry Kissinger made a major announcement about the Vietnam War, saying "We believe peace is at hand." This likely helped the incumbent Richard Nixon go on to win every state but Massachusetts.
The most famous October surprise was one that never came. In 1980, Republicans were worried that President Jimmy Carter would be boosted in his re-election bid by a rescue or release of the American hostages in Iran. That didn't happen - and Ronald Reagan won the election in a landslide.
More recently, Osama bin Laden released a video four days before the 2004 election. This reminder of the 9/11 attacks probably helped George W. Bush win a second term.
The year 2008 saw the financial meltdown, which technically started in September with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It was a moment that boosted Barack Obama and highlighted John McCain's weakness on the economy.
So what about 2012?
That old video of an angry speech with racial overtones by then-candidate Obama which resurfaced last night could sway voters.
Or maybe the surprise is still lurking. Tonight's debate certainly has the potential to provide one.
There's always a chance for significant economic news - a jobs report, or the potential of the U.S. falling off that fiscal cliff.
And it's not hard to imagine some unexpected event in the Middle East. Take your pick: Iran, Israel, Syria, Libya.
Here’s my question to you: What will be the “October Surprise” in this year’s presidential election?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says Mitt Romney will kick President Barack Obama's butt in Wednesday night's debate.
Christie says he thinks Romney will turn the election "upside down" and that it will be a "brand-new race" after the showdown in Denver.
It’s no surprise that Romney's people stepped away from Christie's predictions pretty quickly. They're trying to lower expectations, which is how candidates usually approach debates.
But let's suppose Christie is right. What would it take for Romney to win the debate and change the storyline of this election?
With more than 50 million people expected to tune in, many think Wednesday night is Romney's last best chance to turn the race around. He's been practicing for this debate for months, on top of the practice he got in the almost two dozen primary debates.
But here's the challenge: Romney needs to come off as likable and authentic and show that he can connect with voters. We've been hearing this for months, and apparently it's a real challenge for him.
A piece in The Daily Beast suggests the only thing Romney can do to change the race in a meaningful way is to get specific about his ideas. So far neither Romney nor Obama has been willing to do that. The voters are simply left wondering
Others say Romney needs to make Obama come off as condescending, like when he told Hillary Clinton she was "likable enough" in a 2008 debate.
Romney has reportedly been practicing zingers to use against the president. And while powerful sound bites get lots of play in the days after a debate, it's questionable if a few good one-liners will be enough to catapult him into the White House.
Here’s my question to you: What can Mitt Romney do to win the first debate?
Tune in to the Situation Room at 4pm to see if Jack reads your answer on air.
Jack Cafferty sounds off hourly on the Situation Room on the stories crossing his radar. Now, you can check in with Jack online to see what he's thinking and weigh in with your own comments online and on TV.
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