Like so many other Americans, David Becker knew long before Wednesday night's debate whom he'd be supporting in the presidential election. And, like so many other Americans, he tuned in anyway.
He was hoping his guy — Republican Mitt Romney — would step it up a notch, "get out there and take command, put more on the table, tell us what you will do."
"A guy like Romney should excite me," said Becker, 30, a Republican who manages real estate investments in Fairfield, a charming shoreline town on Connecticut's affluent "gold coast." ''But he has not done that."
That was before the 90-minute head-to-head matchup between Romney and President Barack Obama in Denver, their first of three debates before Election Day.
After it ended: "I think he had Obama on the run. I was pleased to see him finally take the gloves off."
And so it went on the night of the Great Debate in a country ever more polarized and an election year where most Americans, the pollsters tell us, have already decided whom to choose.
Across the land — from an art museum in North Carolina to college campuses in California and Iowa, a retirement community in Florida and Becker's home along the Long Island Sound — debate-watch gatherings were filled with partisans whose minds were pretty much made up before the candidates opened their mouths. The debate itself didn't change their votes.
But the exchange did serve to reinforce their decisions. And perhaps even more importantly for Romney, who has lagged in national polls, the night brought with it a sense of relief and excitement for Republicans who were worried their nominee might not have what it takes to beat Obama.
"Romney far succeeded my expectations," said Republican Art Rotelli, who joined a mixed group of Democrats, Republicans and even one undecided voter at Becker's house to watch the debate. Before things got started, Rotelli had some tough words of advice for his candidate: "He needs to provide a clear contrast, on health care, on the economy. "He needs to stop coming off as too careful."
Afterward, the 35-year-old advertising product designer was dreaming of an Election Day victory.
"Tonight is a game, it's not the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is in November. ... I'd say Romney got a pretty solid lead in this game."
Even some Romney opponents begrudgingly gave the debate "win" to the Republican.
"I'm a Democrat, but Romney was on fire tonight. Romney was aggressive, he attacked. ... I thought he did exceptionally well tonight — unfortunately," said Karl Amelchenko, 36, a lawyer from Raleigh, N.C., who watched the debate at the city's Contemporary Art Museum, with one half of the concrete floor covered in red carpet, the other in blue.
Still, Amelchenko said, nothing he saw or heard will change his vote for Obama. "No," he said. "I mean, my mind was made up long before."
The museum event was meant to be bipartisan, but of the 30 or so people who showed up, all sat on the blue side of the room. Among them was a pair of registered independents — Emily Millette, a software interface designer for IBM, and boyfriend Austin Reid, a physics doctoral student. Both came in leaning toward Obama and said they heard nothing to push them into the Romney camp.
"Truth be told I came here because it's an art installation, and I came here to be entertained," said Reid, 27, who planned to spend a few days fact-checking what he heard.
Unquestionably, the debates are among the most important events of a presidential campaign season. They attract more viewers — the first debate especially — than the candidates' convention acceptance speeches and far more attention than the avalanche of ads that many a voter may simply mute, said Bill Benoit, a professor who specializes in political campaign communication at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. They do have the power to potentially sway an undecided voter or switch a tentatively decided voter, he noted.
But mostly, the debates could serve to fire up partisans to give of their money and time to help their candidate win. "That matters," said Benoit, "especially this year because both candidates have to raise money in the general election like never before because they declined federal financing. Strengthening your existing attitude toward a candidate can be more important now, this year, than ever before in history."
That certainly happened for debate watchers at The Princess Martha, a 55-and-over apartment community in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, Fla. About 10 residents gathered with popcorn and lemonade in the building's theater room to watch the debate on a big-screen television. And most of those sitting in the comfy black leather seats had no doubt about whom they were supporting: Obama.
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