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Through the wonder of the internet, we can go back to another incumbent President who was in the midst of an economic recovery, who was clearly ahead in the polls, and who totally fumbled his first debate:

Ronald Reagan, First debate 1984.

Here is the first question, where Reagan is unable to answer a simple question about the growing deficit under his Administration. His answer is rambling and ineffective.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ka38mzSuOtI

And his concluding remarks, where he appears terribly confused:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6I9nXPh66w

Of course, Walter Mondale had a great deal of momentum heading out of this debate and went on to win the election.
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Reagan in 1980: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Reagan in 1984: "The question has to be enlarged: Is America better off than it was four years ago?" And I think the answer has to be Yes."

Fascinating.

Peter
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