For the record, it appears as if the first reference to a "knockout punch" in reference to this year's leaders' debate came back on September 17, when Robert Fife of CTV reported that "the Liberals are hoping Dion delivers a knockout punch in the debate."

Since then, it would be safe to say that the phrase has been written and spoken several dozen times by reporters and pundits lacking in both imagination and a sense of history.

The reality is that it has been about 20 years since there has been a widely accepted knockout punch in a Canadian leaders' debate. In 1984, it was agreed that Brian Mulroney's sharp, "you had an option, sir" — a reference to his opponent acquiescing to Liberal patronage appointments — went a long way to knocking John Turner out of 24 Sussex Drive.

Turner almost returned the favour in a rematch four years later. In a highly charged discussion over the free trade agreement, Turner accused Mulroney of "throwing us into the north-south influence of the United States." "Please," Mulroney implored, "be serious."

"I am serious," an impassioned Turner shot back, "I've never been more serious in my life."

But seriously, folks 

Of course, the Conservatives went on to win that election, so Turner's reply can't be considered a true knockout punch. But it was a sharp blow to the body that temporarily set the champion back on his heels.

Since then, the pickings have been pretty slim for fans of boxing metaphors. There have been a few jabs, some nice combinations and some haymakers thrown, if few landed.

At the bell, you would have to say that the combatants were bruised, some were bloodied, but all were still standing.

Why? One big reason is that fighters these days tend not to stand in the centre of the ring and slug it out the way they used to.

Today's politicians are more inclined to keep to their own message lines and play a little "rope a dope" like Muhammad Ali, slipping out of harm's way.

If they see a tough question heading their way, they'll duck their heads, bob and weave around the ring, rather than stand and get hit with a sharp jab to the head.

Political fighters today also spend more time training for the big bout. They watch film of their opponents in action, they try to anticipate their every move in order to avoid being caught by a rhetorical sucker-punch.

It might not be as exciting as a pier six brawl, but it works. The press may always be rooting for a knockout punch. But the combatants themselves are usually happy to settle for a split decision, thankful to be able to live and fight another day.

Why debates matter

So, odds are there will be no knockout punches during this year's debates, which take place Wednesday night in French and Thursday in English. Reporters on the scene will be poised to breathlessly inform you of that. But that doesn't mean these next two nights won't be important.

But important to whom? Well, they will be very important to the press.

To understand why, you need to think of the campaign as a story and, like all good stories, they have an arc to them. As arcs go, this campaign is desperately in need of a new narrative to carry it through to the end.

The master narrative of campaign 2008 was established in its first week and has changed little since then.

For many in the press, it is that Stephen Harper is the master of the electoral universe, the NDP is surging under Jack Layton, Stéphane Dion is a total loser and the Liberal ship he commands is rapidly sinking out of sight.

Now, some of these story lines may well be true, and there may even be fresh evidence to present every day, but that's not the point: saying the same things over and over again gets tedious for both journalists and their audience. Both tend to lose interest.

And these days, with the entire financial structure of the western world melting down before our eyes, Campaign 2008 simply no longer ranks as front-page news. To get back into the headlines, it needs a new narrative. 

That's why the debates are so eagerly anticipated. They are way stations for the weary souls who are covering the campaign, an opportunity for a desperately needed new story line to emerge.

Even if there is nothing resembling a knockout punch, they become, almost by default, a defining moment in the campaign, a chance to finally say something new.

At best, we might learn something we didn't know about the people who are seeking the highest office in the land. At worst, well, we can always switch to vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden vs. Sarah Palin on the American networks on Thursday night, where the chances of a knockout punch are infinitely greater.

And if nothing else, the debates are an opportunity to move away from the boxing ring and into the world of horse racing. The campaign will be entering "the home stretch," the candidates are "sprinting to the finish line," some will be judged too far behind to catch up.

Do debates matter? You can bet on it.