Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama face off in live debates

The four debates leading up to the presidential election give voters a chance to see the candidates unscripted and live, in each other’s presence. Unlike carefully designed advertisements, and choreographed conventions, debates provide viewers a better chance to see the real men behind the rhetoric and ridicule, teleprompters and TV ads.

This year, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama  face an election dominated by the struggling economy. Romney is attempting to make the election a referendum on the president’s economic record, while Obama seeks to relate to voters in a way his wealthy opponent cannot.

Romney and Obama tighten the race in the first presidential debate

In a race that was slowly slipping away from him, Republican candidate Mitt Romney grabbed it back with both hands in the first of three presidential debates. Romney was energetic and organized in his responses to questions concerning the economy. President Obama held his own, not making any major mistakes, but he appeared increasingly frustrated and unengaged over the course of the night.

The debate, held on October 3,  was moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer, who came out of semi-retirement to oversee his 12th presidential debate. By many accounts, Lehrer was overrun by both candidates, who dictated the flow of the debate themselves, regularly exceeding their time limits. The debate was held on the topic of the economy and domestic issues, with rhetoric revolving around jobs, health care, education, and the role of government.

For the first time in this election, Romney truly embraced his record in as governor of Massachusetts, including his statewide health-care plan, a weak point of his in the Republican primaries. He pointed to a record of getting things done with a legislature composed of 87% Democrats, and to Massachusetts’ number one rating in education nationwide.

Obama defended his own Affordable Care Act, which both candidates referred to by its colloquial name “Obamacare,” saying that it was actually largely modeled on the Massachusetts plan. Romney replied that his plan was designed for a state, but not on a federal level, pointing to statistics saying that 75% of business owners said Obamacare would make them less likely to hire.

Obama repeatedly attacked Romney’s tax plan , accusing his opponent of wanting five trillion dollars in tax cuts for the very wealthy, despite Romney’s vehement denial that he would implement such a plan. A clearly annoyed Romney replied, “As president you’re entitled to your own house, your own plane, but not your own facts.”

According to a CNN poll, 67 percent of viewers believed Romney won the debate, while only 25 percent thought Obama emerged victorious.  According to a CBS poll, 61 percent of viewers thought Romney “cared about their needs and problems,” a huge leap from his 30 percent rating before the debate. Obama’s rating increased as well, albeit less drastically, from  53 percent to 69 percent.

Obama still leads in nine out of ten vital swing states, but Romney’s strong performance tightened a race that was already up for grabs. Just as Obama seemed to be gaining traction among voters, a decisive Romney victory in the first of three presidential debates made the election very competitive once again.

Biden and Ryan tie on content in the Vice Presidential debates

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan tangled on foreign and domestic issues in the first and only vice presidential debate of the 2012 election. The debate took place at Centre College in Kentucky on Oct. 11 , and was moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC.

The candidates debated issues ranging from budget plans to the attack on the Libyan consulate that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Biden was  aggressive and spirited, grinning widely, sighing, and rolling his eyes as Ryan spoke. The vice president hit on topics which the president inexplicably ignored, such as the infamous video of Mitt Romney predicting that the 47% of the nation that does not pay income taxes would not vote for him.

Ryan responded by poking fun at the gaffe-prone Biden, saying “I think the vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,” drawing laughs from the crowd.

In the face of Biden’s offensive, Ryan was slightly downtrodden, but kept his cool and held his own, diligently praising his running mate at every turn. He was especially vehement on the topic of the death of American Ambassador Chris Stevens, asserting that the wave of riots throughout the Muslim world shows the real results of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.

CNN surveys showed 48 percent of viewers believed Ryan was the winner, while 44 percent thought Biden emerged victorious, a difference within the poll’s margin of error. Subsequent media analysis indicates that the candidates fought to a draw on content, while Ryan won on style.  Perhaps the real winner was Raddatz, who controlled the debate far more strongly than did Jim Lehrer, challenging the candidates to give more specifics and answer questions directly.

Overall, such a close vice presidential debate is unlikely to greatly influence the outcome of the election. Biden’s strong performance may have stopped the bleeding that resulted from Romney’s crushing victory in the first debate, while Ryan’s professional demeanor may lend the Republican ticket more credibility.