He is that crinkly and blandly familiar face from scores of old movies on afternoon TV, that two-time loser for the Republican presidential nomination who has not been elected to any public office for a decade. Ronald Reagan, 69, seemed so complacent and venerable a Republican front runner that he hardly campaigned at all in Iowa, and his jarring defeat there at the hands of peppy, preppy George Bush, 55, prompted many of his followers to wonder whether he could ever make a comeback. The most reliable public polls on the eve of the New Hampshire primary rated him no more than neck and neck with the onrushing Bush...
Then came the debates... Reagan had challenged Bush to a one-on-one debate, sponsored by the Nashua, N.H., Telegraph, then agreed to pay the tab and artfully invited in four other candidates, (John) Anderson, (Howard) Baker, (Philip) Crane and (Bob) Dole. The Telegraph refused to change the rules for the debate, despite Reagan's angry protests, and a thoroughly flustered Bush supported the newspaper. The other candidates then charged out, accusing Bush of silencing them. The absurd scene made a strong impression on New Hampshire voters to whom Bush had been trying to sell himself as "a President we won't have to train." If he could not cope with so minor a contretemps, voters wondered, how would he react in an international crisis?
Reagan, on the other hand, was masterful. At one point, when he was arguing that the other four candidates should participate, Telegraph Editor Jon Breen ordered the power in his microphone shut off. Reagan shouted, with impressive, raw anger, "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Green [sic]!" Said an admiring aide to Howard Baker: "There were cells in Reagan's body that hadn't seen blood for years. He was terrific!" Reagan's own judgment: "Maybe the people like to see a candidate sometimes not under control."
Reagan had to battle Bush for some time thereafter, but this was a real turning point in the race: where Reagan shook off the tag that he was too old, too tired, and too complacent to be the nominee.
This is what each of the candidates for 2012 will be chasing over the next few months. It doesn't have to be as dramatic a moment as the Nashua debate, of course. Even so, all of them will be looking to overcome their perceived limitations, to prove that in practice they are mostly upside with very little downside.
The modern nomination system is an asburdly inefficient process. It goes on way too long. It costs far too much. It sets party allies against each other in open and often uncivil conflict. But it does have the advantage of thoroughly vetting the prospectives. Each of these candidates will have a chance to deal with their theoretical downsides. Huntsman will have a shot to disavow Obama. Pawlenty will have a chance to generate some buzz. Romney will have a chance to answer for Romneycare. And so on. That's one thing that the seemingly interminable primary campaign is good for.
Final point. There is a chance that none of these candidates can rise above their theoretical weaknesses, that fears about all of these candidates come true. It has happened before. But it's just too early to start betting whether that's going to happen this time around. We have to see these candidates on the stump for at least a little bit before we start presuming that none of them are up to snuff. And, to cultivate that patience, we should remember that old 1980 GOP debate in Nashua, which should remind us that Reagan wasn't really Reagan until after he had won.