Ronald Reagan was an actor before being president, and he gathered all of his dramatic skills when he as incumbent president was debating former vice president Walter Mondale during the 1984 election season.

Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun asked about Reagan’s age, 73 at the time, and said, “I recall that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

Reagan, in an answer still reverberating today, said, “Not at all Mr. Trewhitt. And I want you to know that also, I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The debate hall erupted into laughter, including Mondale, who probably saw at that moment his campaign dissolving.

Now a prominent pollster is wondering whether the circumstances have developed in the 2012 campaign that another such moment will be needed by Barack Obama.

Obama, the incumbent, performed “weakly” against GOP challenger Gov. Mitt Romney this week.

“The reviews suggest that many were surprised at how well Mitt Romney did and how weakly President Obama performed,” Scott Rasmussen wrote today.

The Instant Polls conducted by CBS and CNN showed Romney as the big winner. In fact, CNN found that Romney emerged with the largest advantage from any debate since they began the instant debate poll three decades ago,” he said.

The candidates in many assessments were nearly neck-and-neck going into the event, so that could leave Romney surging past the incumbent.

“Debates rarely have a major impact on a campaign, but a small shift could be decisive in a race as close as this one,” Rasmussen said. “Roughly 5 percent of all voters are still uncommitted to either candidate. Another 10 percent indicate they could change their minds. That’s more than enough to change the race from a slight Obama advantage to a slight Romney edge.”

He said it will be a few more days before the actual impact is spotted in polling, but there is a second question.

“How will the president perform in the second debate? Incumbent presidents often struggle in the first debate and do better in the second. Ronald Reagan may be the greatest example of this.”

Rasmussen said, “After a very poor performance in the first debate in 1984, many wondered whether Reagan’s age had caught up with him. Walter Mondale and his team thought they had a chance. But the veteran performer turned it all around at the beginning of the second debate by pledging not to make his ‘opponents’ youth and inexperience an issue’ in the campaign. Even Mondale laughed, although he had to know his chances of winning the election disappeared at that moment.”

“Does Obama have a comeback like that in him?”

He said Romney’s challenge during the first debate was to make people rethink their assessment that Obama was doing a good job.

“He said that the status quo ‘is not going to cut it’ and talked of the need to find a ‘new path.’ He added that ‘under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They’re just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a tax in and of itself. I’ll call it the economy tax. It’s been crushing,'” Rasmussen said.

What will happen?

“We’ll find out on Oct. 16,” the date of the next debate, he said.

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