We're looking for defining moments

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By The Staff

What an election year this has been. Back in January, South Carolina was in the national spotlight as both the major Democratic and Republican contenders hoping to become the next president courted primary voters.

It was an exciting few weeks as the presidential candidates crisscrossed the Palmetto State. A couple of those candidates – Republican John McCain and Democrat John Edwards (remember him?) – made campaign stops in Lancaster County.

So much has happened since then (from the financial crisis on Wall Street and to the burning of the courthouse on our Main Street), those early days of the primary season seem like ancient history now.

But there’s no forgetting this is an election year.

Turn on the TV or the radio and you’re likely to hear campaign ads, often negative ads, where one candidate attacks the other. It’s enough, though, to make one forget that this has been a historic election year in which barriers for blacks and women have been broken.

Old-style politics, it seems, remains very much alive, though both the Democrats and Republicans seem to agree now that the country wants change.

But the campaign is what it is, and we remain captivated by this historic presidential race.

That’s why we eagerly spent last Friday night watching the first presidential debate between Obama and McCain. It’s why we wouldn’t miss this Thursday night’s vice presidential debate between McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, and Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden. It’s why we’re making plans for the two remaining presidential debates, one slated for Oct. 7 and the other for Oct. 15.

We watch the debates because we care about presidential politics and because we know they can make a difference in the election. Sure, what happens in them usually doesn’t sway those who are loyal to one political party, but they can sway independent voters.

Many presidential historians say 1960 debates helped John F. Kennedy win the election over Richard M. Nixon. These televised debates taught politicians that it not only matters how you answer questions in debates, but it how the public perceives you that matters. In that first debate of 1960, Kennedy appeared young, handsome and commanding, while Nixon appeared pale, tired and not-so-well shaven.

In today’s political lingo, they’d call the first Kennedy/Nixon debate “a game changer.” There hasn’t really been another one since. But there have been moments where one candidate cemented his victory.

Walter Mondale has said he realized he didn’t have a chance against Ronald Reagan in 1984 at the debate moment when Reagan, then the eldest man seeking re-election as president, turned the whole age issue on its head. The Great Communicator so masterfully delivered a line about not making an issue about “the youth and inexperience” of his opponent that he even had Mondale laughing – on camera.

Only time will tell if any of this year’s debates produce a defining moment in the 2008 campaign. We’ll be watching to see if any unfold. We hope you’ll be, too.