As a very successful high school debater, I took great pride in my ability to verbally pick my opponents arguments apart, piece-by-piece, until they were left with a shattered case and often on the verge of tears.
I won lots of debates, but not many on the basis of my likeability. But, fortunately for me, high school debates are more serious affairs than presidential debates, where style and personality often trump substance. George W. Bush didnt beat then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1994 or Al Gore in 2000 with his vast knowledge of government processes, his ironclad grip on the nuances of public policy or his ability to pick apart the arguments of his opponents. He appeared to be the more likeable candidate.
Many voters will be watching tonights presidential debate to see which candidate makes them feel most comfortable. Intangibles are important, particularly to many swing voters, who care as much about character and leadership as they do where a candidate stands on particular issues.
In a nearly 8,000-word article in the Atlantic this summer, James Fallows explored this phenomenon and viewed dozens of hours of old debate footage and public statements from Bush and Kerry. The Fallows piece opens by taking the reader back to 1994, when Bush, then a neophyte politician in his first run for statewide office, challenged Democratic incumbent Richards.
Richards, who had attended Baylor University in the 1950s on a debate scholarship, was thought to be a wily performer, with a commanding grasp of the English language and a sharp wit. She eviscerated her Republican opponent, Clayton Williams, in a 1990 debate. She -- and many inside and outside the punditocracy -- expected Bush, then thought by many as an unaccomplished lightweight, to be easy fodder. Although Bush may not have out debated his opponent, he won the contest by coming across as likeable, with strong principles and enough command of the facts to assure voters that he could handle the job as the states top executive.
"When Richards was asked about permitting casino gambling, she replied with a convoluted, minutes-long answer with details about Indian tribal rights," Fallows wrote. "Bush, when asked the same question, had simply said, Im against casino gambling--and when asked, after Richardss discourse, if he wanted to elaborate, said, Not really. ... If you had to guess which of the two candidates had won the debate scholarship to college and was about to win the governorship, you would choose Bush."
Bushs advisers and handlers seem eager around debate time to play up the notion that their guy is the extreme underdog in any situation that calls for quick thinking and a nimble tongue. I distinctly remember in 2000, when I covered the Bush campaign for The Washington Post, Karen Hughes breathlessly spinning us on how Gore was one of the best debaters in the history of the world. Fatigued by months of travel and irritated by the constant spin, I asked Hughes, "What about the universe, Karen? Is he one of the best debaters in the history of the universe?" This time around, Bush strategist Matthew Dowd hyperbolically compared Kerry to Cicero.
In the weeks and days leading up to tonights debate, every pundit has had an opinion on what the candidates needed to do in the debates. For Kerry, the conventional wisdom was that he needed to prove that he was not a flip-flopper and enunciate a clear vision on the important issues of the day.
True enough. But the biggest hump for Kerry to get over tonight is the likeability hump. Kerry needs to prove that he is not the officious, stentorian bore peddling snooze-inducing and confusing bromides, as his Republican opponents have worked so hard to portray him.
This is not to say issues dont matter. They do. But the Bush attacks on Kerry have been devastatingly effective because even the issues campaign has been based on personality and character issues. Has Bush -- who continues to get sub-50 percent ratings on his handling of Iraq and the economy -- moved ahead of Kerry in the polls because he has articulated better positions on the biggest issues, or because he has convinced people that the flip-flopping Kerry will say whatevers politically expedient at the moment?
"We thought the election would be about Iraq, terror and the economy," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginias Center for Politics. "But weve forgotten the lessons of the 80s, which is that Americans care a lot about the character of the candidate, and even if they agree with the candidate, they might not vote for him if they dont like him."
This is going to be tough for Kerry, because, well, he is who he is. Kerry must speak in a direct, clear, declarative and purposeful way. But he cant change his personality for the debate.
Chris Lehane, Gore campaign spokesman in 2000, considers the 1980 debates between then-President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan an interesting parallel. Similar to the current political environment, many voters were deeply concerned about the direction of the country under Carter. But until the debates, the race was still close, in part out of concern that Reagan was extreme to the point of kookiness. Yet Reagan won those debates, with a casual, calming and often humorous presence, putting to rest questions about his character.
"And he never looked back," Lehane said. "Look, the candidates are going to be trying to connect with the 60 million or 80 million people who are going to be watching [tonights debate]. [Kerry] shouldnt be looking to score technical points like this is Harvard-Yale debate society, but looking to connect with those voters out there who are very unhappy with the direction of the country, but are still uncomfortable with how his character has been portrayed so far."
Scott Reed, who ran Bob Doles campaign in 1996, offered a similar assessment.
"Bush comes across as a guys guy, someone you wouldnt mind seeing in your living room on a daily basis," Reed told me Wednesday. "Bush has been able to turn this around and make it a referendum on his challenger. Now he must step up to the stage and clear up missteps on Iraq and come across as someone you want to spend some time with. So much of this will come across in tone and style for the first 10 minutes."
As Reed noted, Bush has challenges as well. He has a tendency to speak in platitudes and be very repetitive, coming off as though hes always reading from a script. When hes deviated from script -- on Iraq in particular -- the results have been embarrassing, such as when he suggested that the war on terror was not winnable and that the CIA was just "guessing" when it predicted potential chaos in postwar Iraq.
But Bush has the wind at his back. His reputation and persona are already well established in the publics mind. In polls, large percentages of voters are still saying they have no clue who Kerry is. Therefore a bad performance for Kerry could be impossible to overcome before Election Day. On the other hand, the upside of a strong performance is huge. As Reagan showed in 1980, the debates can make or break a race.