TV's new reality show: Presidential debate

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama talk after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver. (Oct. 3, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Ellis Henican Newsday columnist Ellis Henican

Henican is a columnist for Newsday. He also is a political analyst at the Fox News Channel and ...

Will Tuesday's Hofstra University debate shift the momentum of the presidential race once again?

That's debatable.

But you have to give this much credit to the moldy old tradition of two candidates on a stage together trying to claw each other's eyes out: Suddenly, debates really, really matter again.

If it weren't for debates, Barack Obama would be doing a well-deserved pre-victory dance already and people would still be nagging Joe Biden, "You know, you really should smile more!" The Democrats may still pull this one out.

But the unexpected relevance of the debates comes as a huge surprise to America's most seasoned pundits. Until two weeks ago, almost all these learned know-nothings were certain that debates don't change elections any more. Starting in 1960, they explained patiently, the true importance of television makeup became clear and all subsequent debate bumps were rendered momentary.

But here we are, 52 years after Kennedy-Nixon, and our politics have grown so shallow, so prefabricated, so contrived, that voters are thirsting for any view of the candidates that feels remotely real -- more real, at least, than the latest 30-second attack ad from a super PAC. So when Mitt Romney romped in Denver, people noticed. When Obama turned all bashful and polite, people noticed that too. When Biden and Paul Ryan went at each other with a loathing completely unveiled, the spectacle felt far more real than anything on reality TV.

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So, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, here they go again. No one knows for certain how this next one will turn out. And isn't politics more fun that way?

RUMBLE 2012

1. Below the Beltway

2. Down for the Electoral Count

3. Left Hook

4. Right Jab

5. Rope-a-Dopes

ASKED AND UNANSWERED: Does Larry Greenfield really want to be known as the millionaire securities trader who, after $65,000 in high-end matchmakers, still can't find a wife? . . . How does Ray Bertolino keep snagging such high-profile guests for his local "Conversations" show, Sundays at 10 p.m. on WHPC/90.3? It's Regis this week. . . . Is this his idea of a rematch? Nassau police say Sasha Marsi, who ran a losing campaign this year for Saddle Rock board of trustees, attacked Mayor Dan Levy. . . . Now that boaters ed will be mandatory in Suffolk, who will teach the county's estimated 100,000 boaters? . . . Why isn't Steve Israel getting more sympathy for his Dix Hills short-sale? Wouldn't the house-poor congressman and his soon-to-be ex have preferred to be dividing real-estate PROFITS instead? . . . Really, why does Gristedes billionaire John Catsimatidis need a 5 million gallon petroleum-storage facility in Riverhead? What kind of gas mileage does his SUV get on the ride to East Quogue? . . . Love rock? How'd you like to pick the hits at the new 94.3 The Shark? Program director wanted.

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THE NEWS IN SONG: I'm not ready to back down: "Not Ready to Make Nice," the Dixie Chicks, tinyurl.com/madstill

LONG ISLANDER OF THE WEEK: RACHEL RUOTOLO

Those Smile Train ads have people convinced: Cleft lips and cleft palates are a heartbreaking problem for Third World children. "But here's what people don't know," says Dr. Rachel Ruotolo of the Long Island Plastic Surgical Group, a renowned specialist in facial reconstruction. "These conditions are just as common on Long Island. We just correct them sooner. So you don't see 3-year-olds running around with cleft palates." With deft operating-room procedures, pro bono work and public education, Ruotolo has turned that understanding into her life's work. "The results truly change lives," she says.Email ellis@henican.com.

Follow on Twitter @henican.

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