Commentators on debates among presidential candidates have carped for years that these events are meaningless exercises in puffery, and while the three clashes between Barack Obama and John McCain offer evidence for that view, the fact is that they made a difference. Through the lens of those debates, voters have focused on the campaign and made one candidate the clear favorite.
To be sure, some of that is about style over substance and things might well have trended the same way without the debates. Given President Bush's massive unpopularity, Obama benefits and any Republican would have trouble pitching himself as an agent of change.
Further, McCain, in a politically unwise declaration, announced to the country months ago that the economy wasn't his strong suit. Like many people, he thought terrorism and the war in Iraq would be the main issues of this election, but with Wall Street's meltdown, the economy become Topic No. 1. Advantage: Obama.
And finally, even before the first debate, voters had begun questioning McCain's surprise choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. The man who promised always to put country first appeared to be putting it somewhere behind politics.
Still, the debates mattered. Polls after each event showed viewers thought Obama won and, through them, the Democratic candidate solidified his lead. With his steady performance in the first debate, Obama showed himself to be a plausible president -- informed on issues and able to think on his feet. By Wednesday's last debate, voters could see in him a cool, unflappable candidate whom most felt they could trust.
McCain, meanwhile, often floundered, showing himself to be less interested in how to fix the economy than in how to smear his opponent. Indeed, he seemed cranky and dismissive of Obama from the start and, by the third debate, was so visibly irritated that commentators, including conservative ones, were pointing it out. Such observations may, in fact, elevate style over substance, but that's at least a factor.
Style can tell you something about how a president would relate to other world leaders. It can influence the amorphous but critical quality of persuasiveness, one of the most crucial tools of any president. It can be reassuring, as voters found Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan to be, or off-putting, as they found Michael Dukakis and Richard Nixon, at least in 1960. Style matters.
That, in the end, may be the lasting influence of these debates. To be sure, voters seem to have liked what they heard from Obama on war and the economy, but they also liked what they saw. They tried him on for size and found that he fit.
We still wish Obama had agreed to McCain's idea of holding many small debates, since they would give voters a better chance to evaluate the candidates while de-emphasizing any single slipup or "gotcha" moment. It seems a better way.
Still, it's hard to imagine that the outcome would have been any different. These are both good men, but they are who they are and conditions are what they are. If the country still had any voters who had not tuned into the race, the debates gave them a fair look at both candidates. They did their job.