Analysis: Will the Debates Make a Difference?

PHOTO: In these Sept. 2012, file photos Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, boards a plane in Denver, Colo, and President Barack Obama gets off a plane in Tampa, Fla.

ANAYSIS: Last week Mitt Romney opened an Ohio bus tour on the same day that a new poll in the state showed him lagging behind President Obama by a 10 point margin.

This week, he enters his final day of preparations before the first presidential debate as a new national poll finds the race close: Obama leads Romney, 49 percent to 45 percent among likely voters across the country, according to the Quinnipiac University survey.

The poll finds that Obama leads 56 to 38 percent among women and 94 to 2 percent among black voters, while Romney leads 52 to 42 percent among men and 53 to 42 percent among white voters. Independents split almost evenly with 47 percent who say they are backing Romney compared to 45 percent who support the president.

But keeping it close nationally isn't going to win Romney the White House if he can't prevail in states like Colorado where most of the recent public polls give Obama the edge -- by several points. The Romney campaign sees the race in this important Western battleground closer than that, and it was no accident that Romney told nearly 6,000 supporters at a rally in Denver last night that he had a "request" for them.

"I'd like you to go out and find one person who voted for Barack Obama -- or maybe two or three or four or five -- and convince them to come join our team," Romney said to the crowd. "I need you to go out and find people and say 'You know what? It's not working.' It's time to get America going again."

Finding those "three or four or five" Obama supporters, or undecideds, will be crucial in a state that then-candidate Obama won by a 9-point margin over John McCain four years ago. The GOP candidate has no better opportunity to make a good impression on wavering voters than in the three presidential debates, the first of which takes place tomorrow night at the University of Denver.

Get more pure politics at ABCNews.com/Politics and a lighter take on the news at OTUSNews.com

The problem for Romney, however, is that debates are often the hardest place to make a comeback. As John Harwood observed in The New York Times this week: "History shows that candidates have different ways to score through presidential debates: the forceful put-down, the surprising show of skill, the opponent's fumble, superior post-debate tactics. But it also shows that to fundamentally alter the direction of a campaign, a candidate usually has to accomplish all of those things."

Besides the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960, the only recent series of candidate match-ups that definitively helped one candidate over another were the Gore-Bush debates of 2000.

"Across the entire 2000 debate period, the race shifted from an 8-point lead for Gore to a 4-point lead for Bush," according to Gallup Poll analyst Lydia Saad.

But the bigger picture is not as promising. As ABC News Political Director Amy Walter notes, after looking through the last 40 plus years of data, Gallup reported back in 2008 that "presidential debates are rarely game changers" and pointed to just a "few instances in which the debates may have had a substantive impact on election outcomes."

Nevertheless, there's always the chance that the debates will carry the same importance in 2012 that they did in 2000. Romney, for one, said he is "delighted we're going to have 3 debates."

"It'll be conversation with the American people that will span almost an entire month," Romney said in Denver last night. "We'll describe our respective views, and I believe the people of Colorado will choose a better way forward for our country."

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