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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Debating the Debates

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; 8:35 AM

Reporters love the runup to a presidential debate: the drama, the strategy, the expectations, the mock sessions, the handicapping, the heart-pumping sense that the rest of the country is finally tuning in on what you've been covering since there were nine Democratic candidates that few folks could name.

Now it's showdown time!

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Which would be a heckuva lot more convincing if the debates weren't structured as parallel press conferences in which a candidate can hardly turn his head without permission.

Not that I want to give up a chance to go to Miami.

Whether the debates wind up being the Crucial Turning Point they're always touted as in advance, they will be the campaign for the next two weeks as the media promote, cover, analyze and then rehash the three Kerry-Bush clashes and the Edwards-Cheney face-off. The only exception will be the ads, which are coming so fast and furious that I had to cover two of them on Saturday night. Here's my latest scorecard on a battle so harsh that both sides are now using Osama in their spots.

Partisan passions in this election are running so high that I wouldn't be surprised if more people watched these debates than in '96 or '00. But keep in mind that debates tend to reinforce what most voters already think about the candidates.

A New York Times feature dispenses with such bothersome matters as terrorism, saying that "if previous debates are any guide, the candidate who voters perceive as the winner will probably be chosen not on the substance of what he says, but on the cut of his jib.

"The subtle style cues of gesture, posture, syntax and tone of voice account for as much as 75 percent of a viewer's judgment about the electability of a candidate, said Bill Carrick, a political consultant who ran Richard A. Gephardt's presidential campaign this year. In a word, he said, the mano a mano is about style -- those nonverbal messages that speak to hearts, not heads . . .

"It is the candidates' faces that voters see and judge first. When it comes to Kerry vs. Bush, it's 'The Jaw of Thunder' meets 'Lips of Destruction.'"

Well, now you know.

The Washington Post had this setup:

"For Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), stuck in second place with just five weeks left in the presidential campaign, the debates that begin this week may be the best chance remaining to close the sale with voters and beat President Bush.

"Widespread polling, stubbornly consistent for months, finds Bush vulnerable. Voters report that they are unhappy with the war in Iraq, the state of the economy and the general direction of the country. Yet the same polls indicate that more voters do not like his Democratic challenger than do.

"Beating Bush in these debates -- the first on Thursday at the University of Miami -- will be no easy matter, judging from the extensive record Bush and Kerry have compiled in televised face-offs. The president is an unorthodox debater but an effective one, especially against candidates schooled in the traditional rules of debate, such as Kerry."

Oh, and here's the new Post poll:

"President George W. Bush maintains a clear lead over Democrat John F. Kerry and continues to be perceived by most voters as the candidate best able to deal with Iraq and the war on terrorism, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"Bush currently receives 51 percent among likely voters while Kerry gets 45 percent and independent Ralph Nader receives 1 percent. Among all registered voters, Bush holds a seven-point advantage."

Watch how USA Today frames the Coral Gables Confrontation in terms of its poll:

"President Bush leads Sen. John Kerry by 8 points among likely voters, the USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows, a narrower advantage than Bush held in mid-September and one that puts him at the edge of the survey's margin of error.

"Among all registered voters, the president's lead widened a bit to a statistically significant 11 percentage points.

"So the candidates head toward their first debate Thursday with Bush ahead, but not by an overwhelming margin. Campaign analysts say their three debates could solidify the president's lead -- or upend it."

Prediction: If Kerry still trails after the first two, the press will cast the third debate as his last, desperate chance to catch up.

The New York Post takes the temperature on the event:

"The White House is trying to turn up the heat on John Kerry.

"President Bush's campaign wants to see the challenger break a sweat under the glare of the national spotlight during the presidential debate Thursday.

"They blocked Kerry's request to have the debate room chilled below 70 degrees, leaving Kerry's glands at the mercy of the thermostat at the University of Miami.

" 'He's a sweater,' one GOP official told Time magazine, 'and women don't like sweaters.'"

Thus is the leader of the free world chosen. Shades of Richard Nixon.

Roger Simon shares my skepticism:

"I hate to be the skunk at the lawn party, but the upcoming presidential debates may not be as big a deal as some in the media are making them out to be.

"Some are convinced that they will be the pivotal moment in what has been a very long campaign. Many are convinced they will make or break John Kerry.

"To which I say: Maybe. But maybe not.

"Debates are usually not pivotal events. Debates are usually pretty good at providing a peek at the candidates and how they behave under pressure, but are pretty bad at producing clear winners and losers.

"And winners and losers are definitely what the media care about. (Which is why they conduct focus groups, just so they can claim ordinary people have picked winners and losers even when there aren't any.)

"Yet the same members of the media who are now saying how important these debates certainly will be also sat through dozens of primary debates, which didn't amount to hardly anything.

"In fact, the media are usually disappointed by debates, because the only debates that we remember are those with zingers and gaffes and most debates don't have those."

I'm beginning to think I may have already heard every line the candidates will use in Florida, judging by yesterday's rhetoric. The Chicago Tribune has the highlights:

"Setting the themes for their first debate, President Bush contended Monday that Sen. John Kerry 'cannot expect to lead the world' by taking multiple positions on issues while the Democrat charged the incumbent "refuses to come clean with the American people" on the situation in Iraq. . . .

"For Bush, the strategy was to keep portraying Kerry as vacillating on the war in Iraq as well as funding for troops and rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq. The Democratic challenger proceeded with an aggressive effort to portray Bush as out of touch on the realities of Iraq and offering too positive a picture of a country in which insurgent violence is on the rise."

The surrogates are out in force as well:

"Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts accused President Bush on Monday of making the world a far more dangerous place, calling his handing of the war in Iraq 'a toxic mix of ignorance, arrogance and stubborn ideology,'" says the New York Times.

American Prospect's Michael Tomasky offers Kerry some advice:

"Now -- beginning with this Thursday's debate -- Kerry should strike right at the dark heart of Bush's national security failures. Where, he should ask, is Osama bin Laden? We sent about 12,000 troops to Afghanistan. We removed the Taliban, but the man who orchestrated the September 11 attacks and then delivered to the world a videotape gloating about them slipped away. Then boom, we sent 130,000 troops to Iraq, which was somehow more important than getting the man who killed 2,700 Americans. Osama still circulates.

"Can you imagine the furor from the Limbaugh/Fox News corner if a President Gore hadn't captured the 9-11 malefactor by now (and had diverted resources to go after someone else instead?)"

National Review's Doug Gamble sees no drama:

"I have bad news for Democrats holding out the hope that the three upcoming presidential debates will spark a turnaround in John Kerry's campaign. He will lose the debates decisively, en route to a thumping at the polls in November.

"Because Americans already know George W. Bush and his beliefs, for better or worse, he enters the debates minus the burden of something to prove. Many, perhaps most, Americans, however, do not know Kerry, putting more pressure on him to give a good accounting of himself. The problem is, Kerry also does not seem to know who he is, and it's too late for him to figure himself out.

"Rather than showcasing a Kerry whom more people will consider voting for, the debates will expose a Kerry most Americans will realize they cannot vote for."

Nothing like absolute certainty.

Slate's William Saletan has words for the senator as well (hey, how come no one is telling Bush what to do?):

"Define Bush's problem with the truth. The other day, in an ad lib, you called him a liar. Don't do that again. In a contest of sincerity, more people trust him than trust you. What they don't trust is the correspondence between Bush's sincere beliefs and reality. The descriptions you used in this speech -- 'mistakes,' 'misjudgment,' and 'miscalculation' -- are exactly right. And your theme for unifying that critique -- that he's 'living in a fantasy world of spin' -- is almost perfect. I don't like the word 'spin,' which implies that Bush knows better than what he's saying. He doesn't know better, even when he should, and that's the problem. 'Fantasy world' is shorter and better. . . .

"Come up with a good Saddam line. Bush says you think we'd be safer with Saddam in power than in jail. Your reply today -- 'George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority; I would have made Osama Bin Laden the priority' -- is accurate but lame. You'll need a zippier version in next week's debate. Something like, 'If I were president, Osama Bin Laden would be in jail.'

"Tone down the suck-up to women. These lines in your opening remarks reeked of poll-driven calculation: 'This is not just a political or military struggle. It goes to the very heart of what we value most: our families. It strikes at the bond between a mother and child. . . . No American mother should have to lie awake at night worrying whether her children will be safe.' Please, find a subtler pick-up line."

Is this The Bachelor or something?

Remember Naomi Wolf? The feminist author and former Gore adviser who was credited, fairly or not, with urging him to wear earth tones? She's back, in New York magazine, with an analysis of the Kerry marriage:

"It has been well established that modern women maddeningly long for men who are tender in private but authoritative in public. Unfortunately, Teresa Heinz Kerry's [convention] speech, which all but ignored her husband, did more to emasculate him than the opposition ever could. By publicly shining the light on herself rather than her husband, she opened a symbolic breach in Kerry's archetypal armor. Listen to what the Republicans are hitting Kerry with: Indecisive. Effete. French. They are all but calling this tall, accomplished war hero gay."

How?? How could I possibly have missed this??

"The charges are sticking because of Teresa Heinz Kerry. Let's start with 'Heinz.' By retaining her dead husband's name -- there is no genteel way to put this -- she is publicly, subliminally cuckolding Kerry with the power of another man -- a dead Republican man, at that. Add to that the fact that her first husband was (as she is herself now) vastly more wealthy than her second husband. Throw into all of this her penchant for black, a color that no woman wears in the heartland, and you have a recipe for just what Kerry is struggling with now: charges of elitism, unstable family relationships, and an unmanned candidate."

Wolf is still doing the wardrobe thing.

WashPost columnist David Broder is drawing a lot of attention--and flak--for admitting he's depressed about the debacles involving CBS, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley (in other words, everything I cover on my beat:

"After almost a half-century in this business, I certainly feel a sense of shame and embarrassment at our performance. The feeling is not relieved by the awareness that others in journalism not only did fine work on other stories but took the lead in exposing these instances of gross malpractice. . . .

"When the Internet opened the door to scores of 'journalists' who had no allegiance at all to the skeptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional news gathering, the bars were already down in many old-line media organizations. That is how it happened that old pros such as Dan Rather and former New York Times editor Howell Raines got caught up in this fevered atmosphere and let their standards slip."

I found this blame-the-Net paragraph a bit odd, and it drew this slap from Andrew Sullivan:

"Much of David Broder's worrying about the decline of the mainstream media is well-taken. But then he writes something daft like this," quoting the above paragraph.

"Huh? Without the blogosphere, the arrogance and folly of Raines and Rather would have continued long past their expiration date. And the emergence of journalistic 'stars' long predates the arrival of the blogosphere. It was mainly a 1990s phenomenon - and fueled by old media figures like Tina Brown and, yes, Howell Raines. Blogs have helped bring these 'stars' back to earth."

Actually, it was The Washington Post that broke the Blair story, but Sullivan's point--that some in cyberspace blow the whistle on journalistic fraud, as opposed to causing it--is well taken.

The New York Daily News has more on Cynthia Nixon and her "Same Sex in the City" tale.

Now here's a bit of surprising showbiz news, from the Los Angeles Times:

"Jay Leno will give his five-year notice on 'The Tonight Show' this evening, the 50th anniversary of the NBC late-night talk show, and announce that Conan O'Brien will take over as his successor."

But the show is Jay's life!

"In a statement, Leno said, 'In 2009, I'll be 59 years old and will have had this dream job for 17 years . . . plus, I promised Mavis [his wife] I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60.'"

Could Dan Rather be eyeing a similar strategy?

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