Romney may have pulled a JFK in the first debate, but the race is still Obama's to lose, and will be very close
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Even Richard Nixon's mother thought he was sick. After the first televised presidential debate in American history on Monday, Sept. 26, 1960 -- a contest in which a legendarily tanned and cool John F. Kennedy appeared to best a legendarily wan and perspiring Richard M. Nixon -- many observers called it even on points. Stylistically, however, Nixon lost so badly that Hannah Nixon reached out to her son.
"It is a devastating commentary on the nature of television as a political medium that what hurt me the most in the first debate was not the substance of the encounter between Kennedy and me, but the disadvantageous contrast in our physical appearances," Nixon wrote in his 1978 memoir. "After the program ended, callers, including my mother, wanted to know if anything was wrong, because I did not look well."
In roughly the same way, even President Obama's closest allies were left wondering what had happened to their man last week in Denver, and worrying about what he'll do to recover through the rest of October. At least Nixon had the comfort of having fought Kennedy fairly even on the substance -- a comfort that Obama does not have as the President prepares for his second and third rounds with a victorious Mitt Romney.
In political lore, the Kennedy-Nixon showdown decided the race for JFK. A closer look at the history of the fall of 1960 suggests to me, however, that the central lesson of the whole story of the Kennedy-Nixon debates is that such evenings tend to affirm, not transform, the trajectory of a presidential campaign. Which means the campaign is still Obama's to lose.
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