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Especially with his latest setbacks, it seems pretty clear that Mitt Romney will have to “win” or at least seem to do very well in tonight’s Denver debate and the two that follow. Romney has been practicing “zingers” for two months and GOPers are quick to remind you that in a similar mismatch in 2000, George W. Bush “beat” Gore in the debates. (To be churlish, we will point out that Bush actually lost that election.)

Now, here’s what’s wrong with that reasoning, and why Obama probably has little to worry about.

In 2000, many in the allegedly liberal media had turned against the robotic Gore, and when they reported or opined that Bush “won” a debate that carried the news cycle for days. But a funny thing happened in 2008: most of the TV news outlets set up focus groups or arranged for credible instant polls minutes after the debates ended. And these polls were of the “scientific” variety, not bogus online voting.

As in 2000 (as I chronicle in my book Why Obama Won), most of the pundits again said the GOP candidate did very well—in this case, John McCain—or at minimum “held his own, maybe more” vs. the favored Obama. But every time they went to the voter reaction, via their focus groups or quick polls, they found that actually Obama had won easily. This even happened on Fox.

And it happened again, exactly like that, after most claimed that Sarah Palin really “held her own” vs. Biden in their debate.

So the pundits and TV talking heads are no longer in control. They will no doubt claim that Romney somehow “held his own” against smooth-talking Obama, and then they will probably have egg on their faces a few minutes later—as in 2008. (Note: I will be live-tweeting the debate over at @GregMitch)

Here are some details on how this played out in the 2008 debates.

#1 Most analysts (and the entire National Review crowd) felt McCain had gained at least a tie with his late argument that he had far more experience than Obama. They overlooked that he had recently picked Sarah Palin as his running mate and she was at that moment in free fall after the Couric interview. Focus groups and polls showed Obama won easily. Egg starts to appear on pundits’ faces.

One highlight of the debate: McCain said he was wearing a bracelet from the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq who asked the candidate to “complete the mission” so her son did not die in vain. Obama (tipped off to this?) then said he also wore a bracelet from same sort of mom—who asked that other mothers not have to endure losing a child.

#2 David Brooks praised Palin’s performance and asked, “Where was this woman during her interview with Katie Couric?” Other pundits felt Palin’s wink—or The Wink, as they called it—had earned her at least a tie. Howard Kurtz wrote an analysis hailing Sarah Palin’s performance, and quoted many of his peers saying the same. Then he had to mention that CNN’s poll found that Biden had won easily and a CBS poll that showed he carried independent voters by better than 2-1.

#3 A desultory debate, McCain still judged as holding his own. Obama wins in CNN poll 54 percent–30 percent. CBS finds Obama winning the indies by 39 percent to 27 percent.

#4 Another weak debate, which made Joe the Plumber a national figure, God help us, as both candidates mentioned. Same scenario for focus groups and polls backing Obama.