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8 Questions About the Debates
By Dan Balz

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.

Of course, the second debate this fall, between the running mates, could be among the most closely watched, given the interest in Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's candidacy. But no matter how she does, Dan Quayle proved that a vice presidential candidate can have a lousy night without any political consequence.

Who has more to gain or lose?

4. In a race that has been so competitive for so long, neither candidate can afford a misstep.

The pressure is certainly on Obama. He has not comfortably crossed the threshold of acceptability with enough voters. Questions about his experience, his readiness to be commander in chief and his background remain obstacles in his path. But the political climate favors Democrats over Republicans this fall: If Obama can use the debates to deal with the doubts about his candidacy, he could emerge as a clear favorite to win.

"The 'Is he ready?' question still hovers over the campaign," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "If he shows the answer is 'yes,' then it really helps him. If not, then it's President McCain."

That assumes McCain breezes through these debates. But there are several obstacles for him, as well. One is that the issue agenda, as Republican strategist Tom Rath put it, "has turned away from his sweet spot" of national security and toward the economy. Another is that he has to escape being seen as an extension of the Bush years.

Who has been the better debater?

5. Obama is well known for his rhetorical skills and is an orator of clear gifts who can lift audiences with his words. McCain is well known as a master of the town meeting, where his quips, straightforward exchanges and interaction have won him plaudits.

But when it comes to debating, neither has been a natural. In the primaries, Obama struggled at first. By his own admission, he had trouble mastering the format of quick answers and sharp ripostes. Eventually, he started to get better.

Howard Wolfson, who was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign communications director, replied when asked who was better: "Obama -- 22 debates was very good practice."

McCain was less predictable as a debater. Sometimes he was unfocused, but when it mattered most, he scored well. His advisers believe his performance in a New Hampshire debate in September 2007, when he was being written off, helped put him back into the fight for the GOP nomination.

As one Democratic strategist put it: "It came as no surprise that both campaigns wanted the looser rules we have this go-around. Time constraints hamper both men because one tends to be professorial in his replies while the other rambling. People who follow politics closely know that this forum is not ideal for either."

Still, neither would have gotten to this moment without having navigated the longest series of primary debates in the history of presidential politics. "Both held their own against skilled opponents," said Rick Sloan of the International Association of Machinists. "Both found ways to convey their core messages and yet reinforce the strengths of their personalities."

What is each candidate's biggest vulnerability, and how can he deal with it?

6. Substantively, Obama is seen as weaker on foreign policy and national security, although his advisers are eager to have a debate on these topics because they believe he is underestimated. McCain is viewed as weaker on economic issues, but by jumping into the middle of the negotiations in Washington over the financial rescue package he hoped to show voters he can lead on that topic.

Still, mistakes, missteps or signs of tentativeness on those issues will be judged harshly.

Stylistically, each has vulnerabilities. McCain had a fine performance last month at pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California. He was relaxed, incisive, crisp and self-deprecating. In the past week, as he has tried to respond to the financial crisis, he has been abrupt, angry and impetuous. Voters watching the debates will be taking cues not only from what he says but from how he says it.

Obama's style carries the risk of making him appear aloof and cerebral. "He must avoid the Dukakis trap, responding with cool erudition when passion is called for," said Democratic strategist Matt Bennett. "And he must constantly keep the focus on the voters -- 'your future, your country' -- and not on him." Republican strategist Todd Harris said Obama "needs to take some 'feel your pain' lessons from Bill Clinton."

Whom exactly should Obama and McCain be thinking about when they answer questions?

7. There are several target audiences. One is independents, who continue to split their votes and appear to be having trouble making up their minds. In some polls, Obama is winning them; in others, McCain.

White working-class voters have been a principal target all year, in part because of questions about Obama's ability to connect with them. Polls show that he is seen as the candidate best able to deal with the economy, which should make him more attractive to these voters, but McCain appeals to them as well.

Officials in both campaigns say more women than men are undecided. Obama polls higher among women than McCain, but both candidates know they've got to connect better.

Another target is those voters who are turned off by partisanship in Washington. McCain's reaction to the financial crisis hit on the theme of finding agreement across party lines. He'll sound that theme again and again in the debates. But so will Obama, and their discussions of who is better equipped to end partisan gridlock could be among the most pointed of the debates.

Finally, at a time when the economy teeters on the brink, McCain and Obama should have their focus fixed firmly on the middle class, voters who are hit hard by rising prices and now must worry about what modest retirement savings they've been able to accumulate.

Looking ahead to the vice presidential debate, can Sarah Palin make a virtue of her inexperience?

8. This will be one of the most closely watched vice presidential debates in history, thanks to Palin. She has been preparing, visiting with world leaders and studying briefing books. But she has never been under the kind of pressure she'll feel next Thursday in St. Louis.

There is no way to make a virtue out of inexperience. Palin's media interviews continue to raise questions about her. But strategists see offsets to the reality that she has just taken her first steps onto the national stage. One is her vibrancy -- Palin's personality has been a plus with many voters. If she can show that next week, she'll benefit.

Another is the outsider card. Obama played it in the early stages of his campaign, saying he hadn't been in Washington very long, though long enough to know that something needed to change. Palin can argue the same thing.

"Palin can use her inexperience as a shield if she establishes herself as an informed outsider," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine.

But another Democrat, former John Edwards aide Jennifer Palmieri, said that, given the current economic crisis, "the public is less likely to find inexperience as virtuous as they did a couple of weeks ago."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. won't lose the experience battle, but he has other demons to fear. His ego and verbosity could neutralize what should be natural advantages against Palin. Nor can he afford to look like a bully. But the real problem may be that he will try to score points with insiders and experts, while Palin will be looking to connect with average voters.

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