Jim Mills | Invasion of the alien presidential debaters

Unless the SyFy channel breaks in with live coverage tonight announcing an alien invasion somewhere over the eastern seaboard, most TV-watching Americans will likely catch a glimpse of candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the first of three nationally-televised debates during a presidential race that scientists are convinced began while the earth’s crust was still cooling.

All the major networks – and even some of the not-so-major ones – will dutifully be assembling their crack anchors and reporters to slice and dice the performances of the two, which they will happily do just after they finish privately stewing about why they didn’t get selected to moderate the debate in the first place.

Tonight’s duties fall to PBS NewsHours’s Jim Lehrer, a thoroughly fine newsman who primarily stays on the air courtesy of serious, no-frills journalism, some government cash, the largess of a SuperPac run by an over-sized, purple dinosaur, and, of course, viewers like you.

If the poll numbers are correct, most of those reporters and anchors not moderating tonight’s debate will be incessantly chattering on about the need for Mitt Romney to have a “game change” performance so he can “turn things around” in the month or so remaining before the election. There has been so much unanimity about the “game change/turn things around” scenario, I would be shocked if college students across the country hadn’t already co-opted the phrases for their patriotic, extra-credit, debate-watch party drinking games.

Talking about alien invasions, I noticed that former Vice President Al Gore will be anchoring the coverage tonight for his Current TV network. A sort of black hole in the galaxy of news and public affairs television, I know Current TV must exist somewhere out there because even though I can’t actually see it on my system, I keep reading about folks getting fired from there for one reason or another.

By way of mentoring and public service to some of the younger readers, Mr. Gore lost the presidency to George W. Bush back in 2000 by an electoral count of 5 to 4. Just go to Google or Bing and type in “close-counts-horsehoes-hand-grenades” and you will get the whole story.

Talking about debate moments, the Bush/Gore debates were pretty much defined and reduced to a series of sighs and groans by Gore, who was perceived prior to the event as Bush’s intellectual superior. After his impetuous snarls while Bush was speaking, Gore exited the stage having convinced many that he was that snotty, rich, arrogant schoolyard bully we feared him to be.

The easily underestimated, word-mangling Bush showed up, didn’t bumble too much and convinced the American people that he was “smart enough” for the job. It also didn’t help Gore when, in high school locker room fashion, he invaded Bush’s space on the debate floor – looking quite silly in the process.

I am sure both Obama and Romney have been drilled by their handlers about stifling audible sighs, and keeping to their own spot on the stage, but still, if history is any judge, despite all the highly polished rhetoric we will hear on the economy, tax policy, employment numbers, global competitiveness, and all the rest, if we are still talking about tonight’s debate next year it will be because of one of those unpredictable, seemingly spontaneous “moments” that take place.

The age-challenged Ronald Reagan did it in 1984 when he disarmed his opponent and charmed the nation by joking that he was not going to make Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” an issue in the campaign. Reagan was never going to lose that race, but his comment convinced the American people that Reagan still had his stuff and wasn’t the doddering old man the Democrats were trying to sell. He even had Mondale laughing. The race ended right there.

Following the highly successful Persian Gulf War in 1991, George H.W. Bush’s approval numbers were 91 percent. But, just one year later on a debate stage with Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, Bush was seen checking his watch – as if to condescendingly suggest that he was bored and the debate was a waste of his time.

That moment, seemingly trivial, reinforced the narrative that the Bush administration, in a very rough economy, had lost touch and didn’t care about the average guy. In November the once-91 percent approval-rated Bush was thoroughly crushed by the politically damaged governor of a small state who had been dogged all year by any number of character issues including a girlfriend problem and a draft-dodging problem. On the debate stage Bill Clinton’s “personal issues” faded away long enough for the American people to see him as presidential material.

I have no clue what the magic moment might – or – should be for Mitt Romney to make some headway tonight in his challenge with the polls, but political news junkies all will be watching every second just in case. And, if not – there’s always the SyFy channel.

A former network news producer for Fox News and C-SPAN in Washington, D.C., Jim Mills is a freelance writer living in Myrtle Beach. He can be reached at jimmills2@gmail.com.