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James Rainey: Romney on a roll? Not so fast

President George W. Bush became an object of scorn and near-pity eight years ago for some voters watching his first debate with Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.

Sitting amid a group of 100 swing voters who assembled to watch the debate at a college auditorium in Pennsylvania, I heard some laugh. Others shook their heads in dismay, as the president smirked or stammered and groped for words - particularly as he tried to defend the troublesome war in Iraq.

The crowd had been given portable dial-rating devices to instantly register their feelings about the two presidential contenders. On almost every question, the crowd dialed the more articulate and decisive Kerry as “very good” or close to it. They rated Bush around average, sometimes lower.

That president seemed not completely unlike the one who debated Republican Mitt Romney on Wednesday night. Though far more articulate than President Bush of 2004, President Obama of 2012 seemed a bit irked by the debate proceedings and not particularly enjoying defending himself against someone who he probably believes has no clue about the real trials and tribulations of the Oval Office.

That late September night spent with a focus group at Muhlenberg College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, delivered two important lessons:

(1) Presidential challengers can be elevated substantially by debates. Kerry would jump up in the polls in the days after that and in subsequent debate showdowns with Bush, in which he also performed strongly.

(2) Debates shape a race but seldom decide it. Kerry never overtook Bush. The U.S. senator from Massachusetts lost Ohio by about 90,000 votes and lost the presidency.

Several commentators mentioned the 2004 debates prominently Wednesday night after challenger Romney — another politician from Massachusetts — seemed to score a decisive victory over Obama in the first of three debates between the two men.

Democrats, ironically, turned to the example of that 2004 Democratic loss to find solace. Obama seemed somewhat passive and off his game. In one striking exchange - when former Gov. Romney was piling on about the alleged failures of Obama’s healthcare plan - the president had a chance to jump in and defend himself. Instead he smiled and quipped (to the man who covets his job): “Please go on.”

Both pundits and the public tend to like decisive stories. Back then: Kerry soared. Bush stumbled. And now: Romney dominated. Obama crumpled. That narrative will prevail for a few days and even pick up steam. The punditocracy, after all, enjoys nothing more than change. And the Obama-Romney race had remained static for far too long.

Republicans will now turn to a historical example of their own - the 1980 presidential contest between President Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. Reagan had already begun to move ahead in private polls, his handlers would later reveal. But some analysts like to paint that election quite broadly: Reagan won the lone debate and therefore won the White House. Now they see it happening again, with Romney reprising the Gipper’s starring role.

On that night in 2004, President Bush seemed so overwhelmed and out of sorts that it was easy to extrapolate again. How could someone so unsteady - so unready to the fight for his job - win another four years in the White House? The answer was that despite misgivings about his first term, and particularly public exhaustion with the long and costly war in Iraq, many Americans still personally liked Bush. They never entirely warmed to Kerry, and they wanted to give the president another chance.

Bush lost the 90-minute, prime-time skirmish and won the war for reelection.

James Rainey is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at james.rainey@latimes.com.

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