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July 24, 2017

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Must be the season of debates

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So, how are you enjoying Debate Season, people?

As compared with the prior Convention Season. Or that little patch in between that has now become known as Reducing Expectations Season. And before that, of course, there was Primary Season, and, before that, the French and Indian War.

We started off Wednesday with another long, civic night, in which we learned conclusively that no matter how long you practice, there is no truly appealing way for a candidate to look while the other guy is calling him a fibber.

During the first crucial half-hour of the debate, Mitt Romney seemed more energetic, particularly when he was vowing to defund Big Bird. On the other hand, President Barack Obama called his wife “sweetie.”

I don’t know what you made of all this, but I want to give you full and total credit for having been paying attention when they did it.

Also, for sure: Barack Obama wants to tax Donald Trump more and Mitt Romney doesn’t. (“It’s not just Donald Trump you’re taxing!”)

Give yourselves a little pat on the back, interested citizens. You really have been through a lot. Two more presidential debates and one vice presidential debate to go. Then we will be moving into the final days, sometimes known as the Actually Having an Election period.

(Did you read John Noble Wilford’s article in The New York Times about the discovery of the remains of a dinosaur the size of a house cat? A paleontologist told Wilford it might have looked like a “nimble two-legged porcupine.” I am telling you this because the race for the Republican nomination began at about the time these creatures became extinct. Michele Bachmann shot the last one when it hopped across her front yard.)

For the rest of the month, we will be bobbing along a vast sea of debate coverage, comparing gotcha moments and trying to decide whether anybody made a mistake, or smiled in a weird way, and was thus potentially disqualified from being the leader of the most powerful country in the world.

It’s a little like one of those fairy tales where the citizens of the kingdom pick their next king on the basis of a race to find the feather of the golden swan.

Try to imagine anthropologists explaining this sort of thing if it happened in an obscure island nation: “The people of Gonga periodically choose a new leader through a series of arduous competitions, in which the contestants vie to see who can answer questions most skillfully without breaking the sweating taboo. To decide on a winner, tribe members sometimes like to cover their ears and judge simply by the faces each contestant tries to make while delivering his ‘word-package.’ ”

Does debate season matter? Well, we now know every single thing about the way the voting public thinks, down to their reaction to unscripted comments. (The 47 percent thing was bad. “They didn’t build that” = meh.) And the experts seem to think that the answer on debates impact is kinda no.

All I can tell you is that back in 2000, Hillary Clinton ran for the U.S. Senate in New York against Republican Rick Lazio, and at one point Lazio tried to be clever by walking over and asking Clinton to sign a campaign fundraising pledge. It made him look less like a senator than a stalker, and now, a dozen years later, Hillary Clinton is known as one of the most beloved figures on the planet, while Lazio is known as the guy who once violated Hillary Clinton’s space.

It is pretty clear that a goodly chunk of voters have their minds irretrievably made up. I would include in this category the 62 percent of likely Ohio Republican voters who told a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling either that they weren’t sure whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney deserved more credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, or that they were pretty sure it was Mitt who did the deed.

(Have you noticed that this year Ohio has gone rogue? All the other swing states are out there being swingy, but Ohio keeps posting major Obama leads in the polls. Maybe the independent voters got ticked off when their Republican neighbors kept insisting that Romney is secretly a Navy SEAL.)

For the next week, the polling folk will be trying to analyze exactly how the undecided voters felt about the debate. Actually, I am pretty sure people who still haven’t gotten focused enough to make up their minds weren’t tuning in for an hour and a half of Barack vs. Mitt.

Or maybe they were, under the impression that it’s another reality show about pawnbrokers, except this time they wear really nice suits.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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