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Debate mania: Is it ‘the more the merrier’?

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It’s not just debate season — it’s debate year. So far in this primary campaign, some seven weeks before the first vote is cast, there have been 12 Republican debates, stretching back to early May, when Tim Pawlenty was a candidate and Herman Cain was known only as a former pizza-company executive.

And there’s more, so much more, in store: 14 GOP debates are on the schedule through March, and others will be added if two or more candidates remain standing and anyone has anything left to say.

Of course, that’s just the undercard. The presidential and vice presidential debates begin next fall.

What’s good, what’s not and what’s up with all this talk? A few notes:

 

More debate, less filling? For those counting, the orgy of primary debates is rapidly approaching record territory for a single party. During the 2007-08 cycle, Republicans held 19 debates, and Democrats limited themselves to a mere 16.

Before that? Relative silence. In 2004, Democrats staged just two primary debates, none before the first vote in Iowa. During the 1999-2000 campaign, Republicans engaged in just three primary debates.

The made-for-TV campaign: The explosion of primary debates reflects the influence of TV, especially cable TV, says PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, the ironman of presidential-debate moderating (he’s done 11 of them). The events are ready-made news programming for the likes of Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Bloomberg Television, all of which have been debate sponsors this cycle.

What’s more, unlike broadcast networks, which are loath to interrupt their prime-time schedules, cable networks have plenty of airtime and can live with the relatively small audiences (3.3 million watched the CNBC-sponsored debate last week) that the debates attract, he says.

What’s wrong with that? Maybe nothing at all. The debates effectively “nationalize” the race for the nomination, force candidates to address issues and help winnow a crowded field, Lehrer says: “My own view is the more the merrier.”

Indeed, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) rose and fell in the polls largely because of her debate performances. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s candidacy ran into trouble when he tried to attack former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in September; it might have fallen off a cliff with his YouTube-worthy brain freeze last week.

One oft-cited drawback of such a crammed debate schedule is the decline of “retail” politicking in early-voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Not so, says Mark Halperin, Time magazine editor at large and an MSNBC analyst : “The notion that they’d be off campaigning [instead of doing debate preparation] is false because they do so little campaigning now. They’re flying around raising money or appearing on ‘The Tonight Show.’ ” Debates, Halperin says, are the “best chance” for the public and press to see the candidates.

Rate a debate: Wednesday’s debate in Rochester, Mich., might have been the best to date for substance, verbal fireworks and newsiness. Among other things, it produced Perry’s infamous gaffe; a sharp exchange between former House speaker Newt Gingrich and co-moderator Maria Bartiromo over health care; and Cain’s reference to former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as “Princess Nancy,” along with his umpteenth denial of sexual harassment allegations.

What makes a debate snap, crackle and pop? CNBC editor in chief Nik Deogun, whose network sponsored the Michigan debate, says a panel of highly prepared moderators helps. The Michigan debate focused on a single topic — the economy — that happens to be in CNBC’s wheelhouse.

“You make your own luck,” Deogun says. “We had great moderators, great experts on the panel. We know the content better than anyone.”

No, the opportunity to ask follow-up questions is key, says Dan Schnur, the director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “It’s way too easy [for a candidate] to answer that first question with prepared talking points,” says Schnur, who was communications director for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s campaign in 2000. “A good follow-up makes the candidate think more deeply.” Presidents must deal with the unexpected all the time — the least they can do is handle something unexpected while auditioning for the job, he says.

Ultimately, the candidates need to cooperate, Halperin says. “The smartest question in the world might get a non-answer,” he says. “The candidates have to come to play.”

What if there were a debate and you couldn’t see it? CBS didn’t broadcast the second hour of Saturday’s debate — one co-sponsored by the network. CBS cut away for a rerun of “NCIS” and directed viewers to an Internet stream. Which promptly crashed because of the surge of visitors.

Best spin-room spin: The post-debate “spin room,” where campaign managers hang out to tell reporters what the reporters just saw, regularly produces reality-bending quotes. The most eyebrow-raising comment in this campaign might have been Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan’s repeated assertion to reporters, immediately after Perry’s “oops” moment, that the gaffe was a “stumble of style but not substance.”

Who asked you? The debates have revealed much about the candidates. They’ve also exposed a few things about the audience. Perry’s comments in early September about his willingness to use the death penalty drew applause, and a few hecklers, during a debate later that month, hooted in favor of the idea that a comatose patient should be left to die. A handful during another debate booed a gay soldier’s question about military service.

It’s debatable (sorry) how much these reactions reflect anything more than a small minority’s views, but in a clip-happy media world, they put the GOP on the defensive.

So much debate, so much money: The modern primary debate — with its sets, cameras, staff, fully outfitted spin rooms for hundreds of journalists, etc. — costs anywhere from the mid-six figures to well over $1 million, according to people involved in their production.

With limited or no commercial interruptions, the debates are essentially loss leaders for their sponsors — “prestige” events that have long-term, brand-building benefits but little immediate payoff.

The Washington Post and Bloomberg sponsored a debate Oct. 11 at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, focusing on the economy.

Thus far, CNN and Fox News are leading the pack, each having shelled out for three debates.

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