There is a spectre haunting the GOP nomination process - the Presidential Debates between the eventual Republican nominee and President Barack Obama. Why?
Let's concede, for the sake of argument, that President Teleprompter will be able to put aside his growing peevishness with the ungrateful electorate and will bestride the debate stage with grace and authority. And let's pretend, again for the sake of argument, that the mainstream media will fairly judge the debate performance, rather than calling it a win for Obama no matter what happens. Finally, let's stipulate that despite the debate moderators being Rachel Maddow, Michael Moore and Rahm Emmanuel - or whoever the feckless Commission on Presidential Debates will choose - the Republican will be fairly treated.
That is, let's make all the assumptions that maximize the importance of debate performance for a GOP nominee: it's a tough job; the outcome will influence not just viewers but those that just read about it the next day; there is a chance to win.
Even making all these assumptions, the debates just don't matter to the final outcome of the election.
Let's look at the abbreviated history of Presidential Debates.
Famously, there were four televised debates between Nixon and Kennedy. All of the importance of the debates arises from the mythology surrounding this one. And yet:
In hindsight, however, it seems the debates were not, as once thought, the turning-point in the election. Rather than encouraging viewers to change their vote, the debates appear to have simply solidified prior allegiances.
There were then no debates until three between Ford and Carter. Then one between Reagan and Carter. Two Reagan v Mondale. Two Bush v Dukakis. Three Bush v Clinton v Perot. Two Clinton v Dole. Three Gore v Bush. Three Bush v Kerry. Three McCain v Obama.
Who can remember anything about them? Bush's bulge. The unbearable orangeness of Al. The coldness of Dukakis. "There you go again." Nothing, in short, that depends on brilliance - or even solidity - in debate. And while unsuccessful candidates might like to blame their loss on a single incident, who can doubt that the effect of all these hours of (let's face it, boring) television was merely to 'solidify prior allegiances'?
70 million watched the first Nixon/Kennedy debate. 50 million watched the first McCain/Obama debate.
Next year - barring some boldness from one or other of the candidates - there will be three debates again: Wednesday October 3rd at the University of Denver, Tuesday October 16th at Hofstra University, and Monday October 22nd at Lynn University (Boca Raton). How many will be watching?
And who will care? Yes, the media loves it. And pundits love it - no research or understanding of the issues required, just put the brain in neutral and engage the tongue, recycling the talking points, clarifications and spin produced in real time by the competing candidate teams if a show of diligence is desired. And political junkies (like us) will lap it up, cringing or fist-pumping as the mood takes them. But no one else will notice.
The debates are a sporting event. Once invested in your team you live and die with them as they triumph - or otherwise - on the field. But no-one who actually cares about sport changes their team on the basis of performance. And no-one who doesn't care about sport checks the scores the next day.
The Presidential Debates are irrelevant. And, therefore, the Republican candidate debates are doubly so.
Can we move on to the issues, now?