8 Questions About the Debates

By Dan Balz
Friday, September 26, 2008

The debate scheduled for tonight is supposed to be about national security, but what about the economy?

1. If there is a debate tonight, it will be about the economy. Not entirely, but enough to give Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain the opportunity to discuss the financial crisis, Washington's proposed solution and the unfinished business awaiting the next president.

The candidates long ago agreed to make the first debate about national security and foreign policy, and it's likely that there will be plenty of time to talk about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, Russia and Georgia, China and India, nuclear proliferation, and even global warming.

But the economy is job one, the biggest issue on the minds of voters. And it's a national security issue now as well. As Republican strategist Alex Vogel put it: "If they don't talk about the economy, they both lose. The economy is the only game in town. Period."

Even if the candidates are inclined to stick to script, PBS's Jim Lehrer, the moderator, won't let them. Expect the debate to open on the news of the day.

Can debates decide an election?

2. There are plenty of examples showing that debates can have a powerfully negative impact on a candidate. Gerald R. Ford's errant liberation of Poland in 1976 clearly hurt him against Jimmy Carter. Michael Dukakis's failure to show real passion when asked a hypothetical question about his wife being raped and murdered cost him points, if not necessarily the election, in 1988.

Sometimes it's not what candidates say but how they look. Richard M. Nixon's decision not to shave before his 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy hurt him badly. George H.W. Bush's ill-timed glance at his watch in a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton conveyed a politician out of touch. Al Gore's audible sighs in his 2000 debate against George W. Bush certainly didn't make him any more likable.

Sometimes a candidate achieves a breakthrough moment. Ronald Reagan opened up what had been a close election against Jimmy Carter in 1980 with a debate performance that seemed to diminish concerns among undecided voters about whether he could be trusted with his finger on the button.

That means debates are enormously important -- and these may be among the most important because this election has been close for many months and it's clear that voters have questions about both McCain and Obama.

There's one other factor to keep in mind. Ford was judged more harshly days after that 1976 debate than in the overnight analysis. In 2000, Gore had a decent first debate against Bush but ended up on the defensive immediately afterward. As one veteran of Gore's campaign noted: "Your controlling the post-debate spin is almost as critical, if not more so, than the debate itself. And I say that with a sigh."

Which of the four debates is most important and why?

3. The consensus among political folks is that the first is the most important. It generally draws the largest audience. It's the debate that makes the first and often the most significant impressions. It turns subsequent debates into exercises of either catching up (from a poor performance) or hunkering down (after a good one).

A counter-argument is that the last debate is the most important, particularly if the race stays close. "It will be the last opportunity for undecideds to take a measure of the candidates, and the last opportunity to decide which candidate they can more comfortably imagine being president," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist.

The last debate amounts to a closing argument -- "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" -- by each of the candidates and starts the final push toward Election Day. After the last debate, barring the intrusion of events, substantive debate and discussion give way to efforts to energize and mobilize voters.

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