The GOP candidate debates may be “chatter” to Michelle Obama, but for millions of Americans, they provide a way to make up their minds. It is unprecedented for debates to assume such an enormous role in campaigns. Fred Barnes has some very interesting thoughts on the matter:

Neither fund raising nor the building of grass-roots organizations in key primary states is driving the Republican presidential race. Endorsements haven't mattered much either. Stump speeches have been of minimal importance. And policy papers—such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 59-point economic plan or ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's proposal for tax rate cuts—have been largely overlooked.

By far the biggest influence on the Republican contest has been the series of nationally televised debates. There have been more debates than ever—six so far—and they have attracted record audiences. The most recent debate on Sept. 22 on Fox News drew more than six million TV viewers, plus another six million watching on streaming video.

The debates have overwhelmed the Republican race. "They are about all there's been to the campaign," says Fox political commentator Brit Hume. After each debate the campaign has been frozen until the next one, except for arguments over issues spawned by the debates themselves.

The prominence of the debates should be good news to those who complain about campaign spending and the horse race aspects of American politics (I complain about neither). In a way, the debates have replaced kissing babies and making speeches. 

There are some drawbacks to the emergence of the debates as the GOP’s almost sole way of evaluating candidates: being a silver-tongued orator isn’t the same thing as running a government. I think the voters are smart enough to take this into consideration.

Perhaps because I’ve enjoyed the debates, I’ve been inclined to think they are the best way to decide. Barnes is not so sure that the rise of the debates is a good thing for the GOP, however: 

For Republicans, a campaign dominated by televised debates has two disadvantages. It puts the folks they loathe, the press, in control. The media can dwell on subjects such as tax cuts for the rich or social issues that one or more of the candidates would prefer not to discuss. They are hard pressed to squeeze their talking points into the dialogue. Mr. Obama gets a pass.

Since the media pit the candidates against each other, Mr. Obama's strategists get an early glimpse of the vulnerabilities of the Republican candidates, their strengths and weaknesses on issues, and the attacks used most effectively against them. All Mr. Obama has to do is sit back and enjoy the show.

 On the other hand, the debates give the candidates a chance to see their own weaknesses and prepare for the general election. I might be making this defense, however, because I have become a debate junkie.