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.
"Debates suck up so much time," said former senator Bill Bradley, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, "and they create an unreal universe -- in which you are supposed to be 'real.' " As Bradley's remark suggests, these are theatrical performances. Television conveys images and impressions even better than it conveys positions on issues. Viewers will see, for example, that Obama towers over McCain by nearly half a foot, perhaps an unexpected visual for many voters. They will see how a quarter-century age difference looks in this combative context. Judging by the comments made in the past in polls and focus groups, some voters will draw conclusions about which candidate appears more presidential, more commanding or more comfortable with himself.
And inevitably, viewers will be looking for points scored -- the zingers that stick in the memory. Perhaps the most famous of these was Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's jab at Sen. Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate. As he had on the campaign trail, the boyish-looking Quayle compared his experience in Congress to that of John F. Kennedy when Kennedy ran for president in 1960.
According to Shrum, who helped prepare Bentsen for the debate, he mentioned Quayle's earlier use of the JFK comparison in a practice session. Would Bentsen be comfortable telling Quayle he was no John F. Kennedy? Sure, the senator replied. "The moment was worded, practiced and polished in the mock debates," Shrum wrote in his memoir, "No Excuses," published last year. So Bentsen was ready: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."
Perhaps the most impactful zinger ever came from Reagan in 1980. His one debate that year with the incumbent president, Carter, took place just a week before Election Day. Polls showed the race dead even at that moment, but Reagan's performance in the Oct. 28 debate began an erosion of Carter's support. A week later, Reagan won in a landslide.
Reagan's best moment came after Carter accused him of beginning his political career by campaigning against the proposed Medicare program, an accurate accusation. Carter was trying to depict Reagan as a dangerous right-winger. Reagan responded with a smile: "There you go again." He said he had supported a rival plan for providing health care to seniors -- true, but it did not compare to Medicare. But voters apparently heard "there you go again" as a deflation of Carter's attempts to make Reagan look dangerous -- which, on television, he never did. As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon has written, the line was probably the high point of his campaign. And it was not spontaneous, either, according to Cannon. Reagan had used the line in a practice session, liked it and told his colleagues, "I may save it for the debate."
Shrum is a believer in such "moments," and he believes in rehearsing them. Preparing those moments was part of Kerry's extensive rehearsals in 2004, supported by the same people helping Obama this year: Craig and two other Washington lawyers, Ron Klain and Tom Donilon. One line that Kerry liked was his response to the predictable jab from Bush about Kerry's awkward explanation that he "actually did vote for" an $87 billion appropriation for the Iraq war "before I voted against it."
When Bush mentioned this verbal flub in their first debate, Kerry was ready with his riposte: "I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?" It was a line that elicited a good response when he had used on the campaign trail, Kerry explained -- "a keeper" -- and he had planned to use it in the debate. It provided one of many good moments for Kerry that night, when Bush stumbled in "the sorriest performance ever given by a presidential candidate in a general-election debate," in the words of Alan Schroeder of Northeastern University, a specialist on debates.
The format has been altered this year in a way that could allow for more zingers, though neither camp will predict them. Under the new rules, the first and last of three presidential debates will be divided into nine-minute segments. The moderators will begin each segment with a question and give the candidates two minutes each to respond. That will be followed by a five-minute "discussion" period. The moderator can ask supplementary questions, or the candidates could question each other. According to Paul G. Kirk Jr., the Democratic member of the independent Commission on Presidential Debates (which produces these encounters), the new format "allows for a much more robust discussion -- I don't say guarantees, but allows for." In tonight's debate there will be no opening or closing statements from the candidates.
Kerry said he would have loved this format: "It will make for a much better debate." But veterans of debate preparations predicted that the candidates would be cautious in exploiting the format for fear of looking too aggressive.
The campaigns agreed to this format -- as well as a town-hall-style second debate -- in August, when they negotiated a 31-page "memorandum of understanding" that has not been made public. Knowledgeable sources describe it as similar to the 2004 version that was published this year in a book, "Inside the Presidential Debates." This document makes for curious reading: "The candidates may take notes during the debate on the size, color and type of paper each prefers, and using the type of pen or pencil that each prefers."
This year both camps are relying on outside coaches to prepare their man. Obama has Michael Sheehan, who makes a living advising corporate officials on how to talk to television cameras. Sheehan has helped numerous Democrats learn appropriate body language and mannerisms for television. McCain has hired Brett O'Donnell, formerly the debate coach at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
"These debates can make a huge difference," said David Lanoue, a University of Alabama political scientist who has written about the role of campaign debates. "This is the first debate series ever when neither candidate is an incumbent [president or vice president], and that could change the dynamics in ways we can't anticipate. Both candidates making a case against the incumbent administration is also a first. And the conditions that make debates matter are all in play here" -- significant numbers of undecided and independent voters, two candidates about whom voters still seem to have questions and two candidates eager to respond to their opponents' criticisms.
Staff writer Lisa de Moraes and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.