Grueling Prep Work Precedes Critical Clash

In a mock debate to set up cameras and lighting, Tyler Craft, left, and Mario Hilliard play the parts of the presidential candidates, whom they match in height.
In a mock debate to set up cameras and lighting, Tyler Craft, left, and Mario Hilliard play the parts of the presidential candidates, whom they match in height. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

If John McCain decides to participate, he and Barack Obama will stride across the stage of the University of Mississippi's performing arts center in Oxford at 9 tonight, shake hands and take up positions behind lecterns whose height was negotiated by the two candidates' lawyers. Jim Lehrer of PBS will ask Obama, stage left, the first question (the order was decided in a coin flip Tuesday). An audience that may exceed 100 million Americans will watch both men try to score rhetorical points that could make one of them president of the United States.

There is no mention of these debates in the Constitution or in any law of the land, but over the past three decades they have become the most important events in America's presidential elections. They attract the biggest audiences of the campaign -- this year, when interest is extraordinarily high, it could be the biggest audience ever for a single television broadcast, bigger than the Super Bowl. Both the Obama and McCain camps believe the debates could decide who wins in November -- as they probably did when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, for example. Political scientists have argued that debates also helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000, and made the race close in 2004.

On the stage, said Lehrer, who has moderated more such debates than anyone, the tension is compelling. "You can smell it. It's under your arms and in your toes," he said. "It is extraordinary what these guys go through."

"It's the only event that the entire electorate can really share," Lehrer said. "And it's the only time that the candidates stand on the same stage and talk about the same subjects at the same time." The impact of the debate will endure beyond tonight. "Most Americans on Saturday morning could go to the coffee shop or the soccer game, and everybody will be talking about the same thing," Lehrer said.

"It's a high-wire act," added Ed Fouhy, a retired television executive who was the executive producer of the presidential debates in 1988 and 1992, "and we all watch it for the same reason we go to the circus . . . to see if he falls off the wire."

Fear of falling is a powerful incentive. Both sides put their primary emphasis on playing defense. When representatives of McCain and Obama met in Oxford to flip coins to determine who would stand where onstage and who would answer the first question, neither side wanted to go first, according to a source familiar with the process.

The effort both camps have put into preparations for the debates reveals their importance. The candidates work harder on debate readiness than on any other campaign activity, according to participants in past efforts. The expenditure of time and energy "is bigger than the American public fathoms," as one Democratic participant put it. The preparation shapes campaign schedules and governs decisions about how candidates' time will be allocated. McCain has spent most weekends at home in Arizona since early summer, in part to prepare. In an interview in July, he said he had been watching recordings of Obama debating his Democratic rivals during this year's primaries.

Preparation involves studying briefing books on every issue that might be raised, reviewing the opponent's past debate performances, and -- for Obama at least -- long hours of practice against a Washington lawyer who has spent weeks learning to debate like McCain. He is Gregory Craig, one of Clinton's defense lawyers in the impeachment process in 1998. Craig played Bush in the elaborate rehearsals that prepared Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) for his three debates. "Greg was a better Bush than Bush was," said Bob Shrum, the campaign consultant who ran Kerry's campaign. So good that "he made me angry," Kerry added in an interview.

If the McCain camp has a stand-in for Obama, his identity has remained a secret.

Playing the role of the opponent in rehearsals is almost as challenging as actually debating, according to those who have done it. Recalling his stint as a stand-in for Vice President Al Gore in 2000, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he spent "hundreds of hours reading, listening and watching statements made by Gore, getting up to speed, how he would tactically proceed in the debate, words he would use." The only time he worked so hard previously was studying for the New Hampshire bar exam, "but this was much more intense than that. The way I viewed it, this was the most important job I'd ever had -- it would affect who the next president would be."

Debates compel candidates to formulate easily understood positions on complex issues. "The debate is to the election as the press conference is to governing," said Samuel L. Popkin, a political scientist from the University of California at San Diego, who played Reagan in rehearsals for Carter in 1980. "It forces you to decide where you stand on all the issues, and settles all the fights in your campaign."

Throughout a long campaign, preparing for the debates "is always in the back of your mind," Kerry said. "It's why you're running -- the difference between you and them is the foundation of your candidacy." The key to success, Kerry thought, was "honing the shorthand that has to be used in that kind of circumstance." Debating "is different than a speech or a town hall," it is a particular form of communication with voters.

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