The nationally broadcast debate capped a fierce contest that revealed what critics called a mean streak in Carter and Reagan's deftness at avoiding disagreeable questions. (Some dubbed him the Great Deflector.) For Carter, the situation was dire. Iranian radicals had held 52 Americans hostage for nearly a year. The economy had nose-dived while inflation skyrocketed. By the time of the debate, most polls showed a tie or an edge for Reagan.
Coming just one week before the election, the encounter gave Carter little time to recover from a stumble. That night, Carter displayed a mastery of detail, Reagan a mastery of stagecraft. He dismissed Carter's critique of his views on Medicare with a mocking "There you go again." In his final statement, Reagan delivered a knockout punch: "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment...than there was four years ago?" Reagan's rhetorical questions, carefully rehearsed but delivered with his characteristic power, pierced Carter's presidency and helped cement Reagan's legacy as the Great Communicator. "Certainly no one remembers what the hell Carter said that night," says Rick Shenkman, a presidential historian at George Mason University. "It was Reagan's debate." A week later, it was Reagan's election.