Michael Dukakis was far ahead of George H. W. Bush in the polls in 1988 when CNN's Bernard Shaw asked him if he would still be against the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, was raped and murdered.
It was a rude question, no doubt, but when Dukakis hemmed and hawed about how he was opposed to capital punishment and never said anything about what he would want to do to an animal who raped and killed his wife, Dukakis was finished.
The same thing held true in 1984 during the second presidential debate. In the first one, Walter Mondale wasn't spectacular, but Ronald Reagan was totally off his game and had the pundits speculating about whether he was too old (he was 73) to be president.
When the age question was immediately brought up in the second debate, Reagan said age would not be an issue in his campaign. "I will not hold my opponent's youth and inexperience against him."
Reagan was on top of his game, the questions about his age stopped, and he was easily re-elected.
There were no such moments in tonight's CNN Republican Presidential Debate.
The standout, no question about it, was former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. I was so impressed with her performance that I wrote on Facebook that it will really be something next year when two women are battling for the presidency in the general election.
Then it occurred to me that Hillary Clinton might not be the Democratic nominee.
Even with three hours, some of the candidates slipped in the shadows and some of them probably deserved to slip into the shadows.
After the first half of the debate, I had Fiorina and Donald Trump tabbed as the winners. Trump had not done that well, he was Trump, but that seems to be enough for those who support him.
At that point, I had Chris Christie right behind them. While I am not a fan of Christie's in-your-face approach, I thought he used it effectively tonight.
Those were the only three who stood out in the opening half and the main reason Trump stood out was because all of the questions from the panel were geared toward Trump.
At that point, John Kasich and Ted Cruz were holding their own, but not gaining. Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker were slipping, and Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Dr. Ben Carson had been given almost no air time.
Things had changed somewhat by the end of the debate.
Fiorina's mastery of the facts and the refreshing idea that she actually had plans to deal with some of the problems we are facing, kept her in the winner's circle. Her tough persona was softened effectively with the story of her son's death from drug abuse and with a bit of humor as she noted that marijuana had changed since Jeb Bush tried it when he was in high school 40 years earlier.
Marco Rubio, who was the standout in the first debate, came on strong and moved into the winner's circle. I still see him as someone's vice presidential choice.
I could be wrong since I have been every step of the way about Donald Trump, but he slipped badly in the second half. I am still not expecting him to drop much in the polls. He deserves to drop all the way to the bottom, but sadly, it does not look like that is going to happen.
Chris Christie was able to burnish his law and order credentials and came off as tough on both crime and terrorism.
Coming in behind Fiorina, Rubio, Trump, and Christie by holding their own were John Kasich, Jeb Bush, who did much better in the second half of the debate, Ben Carson, whose low-key personality stood out in contrast with the others on the stage, and Rand Paul.
While Paul made some slipups in his clash with Christie on the medical marijuana issue, he did what he needed to do which is to show how he is different from the others. Paul made it clear he was not going to send troops to other countries at the drop of a hat and he also stoked his libertarian base with his passionate defense of the 10th Amendment and his comments about the effect the war on drugs has had disproportionately on the poor and minorities. That combined with his noted battle to prevent the government from keeping track of Americans' phone conversations, have enabled Paul to stake a place in this race. It is not going to show up in the polls, but Paul is already working on the same strategy that made his father a surprisingly successful candidate four years ago by concentrating on caucus states.
Coming in at the bottom were Mikc Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker.
Cruz and Walker almost completely vanished in the second half, while Huckabee does not appear to be at all the same likable candidate who surprised everyone eight years ago. He seems to be trying to carve out a place for himself as the candidate of the evangelicals. It is not going to happen. The tide that lifted Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 has subsided. Huckabee miscalculated when he thought that the Kentucky county clerk who wouln't issue licenses for gay marriages was going to be his ticket back to the top.
In the early debate, Lindsey Graham came off as much more human than he did in the CNN debate and Bobby Jindal was decisive and in charge. Pataki and Santorum had their moments, but for the most part it did not amount to much. It was interesting, but none of these four is going to follow Carly Fiorina's path to the top tier.