If I see one more reference to the Nixon/Kennedy debate I’m going to puke. The fact is, debates have very little impact even if one of the participants throws a clanger. It confirms what people think, rather than swing large amounts of undecided votes. When President Ford told Jimmy Carter that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in 1976, that had a effect in that it confirmed doubts that people already had about Ford. Likewise, in 1980, Reagan’s famous folksy “There you go again” against Carter just confirmed that Reagan was a better preformer, and came across as a nice guy as opposed to the right-wing ogre the Democrats were trying to portray him as.
The real deal will be the post-debate spin, when all parties will try to convince journalists to focus on what they regard as important. That will be nearly as important as the actual debate itself, as the talking heads “interpret” the debate for the public.
Don’t forget, no one is trying to win this debate, just not lose it. They’ll be ultra-cautious to the extent that I wouldn’t be surprised if the audience figures fall during it.
Finally, as President Bush proved, you don’t have to win the debate, just live up to the (usually low) expectations that have been set by your team. President Bush is a clunky but likable communicator, and that is how he came across in his debates. That’s why Nick Clegg, by just appearing as an equal and communicating a clear message, will be the man to beat. Not because he’s better than the other two, but because expectation (including actual name recognition) is so low. As Benedict Brogan in The Daily Telegraph suggested, he could arrive in power on a wave of indifference.