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Every four years at about this time, the political discussion in America turns to the presidential debates. First, there are the debates before the debates. How many should there be? What format should they take? How close should the podiums be? Where will the pitchers and glasses of water go? Who gets to wear what color tie? (OK, not really.) Then there are the debates during the debates. “The president’s chair is slightly off the agreed-upon height and direction, and the TV view of him looks weirdly skewed to the left.” “The venue is too hot.” “The venue is too cold.” “The senator’s water pitcher was filled too full so now it doesn’t look like he’s working hard enough.” “The president’s water pitcher was not filled enough so now it looks like he’s sweating it out.” (OK, OK, but it could happen.) Then there are the debates after the debates. Who exceeded expectations? Who stumbled? Who hit one out of the ballpark? Who inserted foot in mouth? And finally . . . the debates after the election about the impact of the debates on the voting. DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS All of this might be as silly as it sounds — except that there is a history of nuances that have affected a candidate’s perceived performance and outright gaffes that may well have affected the election. In 1960, Richard Nixon’s widely written about 5 o’clock shadow made him look like a shadowy character to many TV viewers. Hence, some analysts think, the provision in the current Bush/Kerry debates agreement that each candidate be permitted to provide his own makeup person. President George H.W. Bush — who by his own account “hates debates” — by his own admission “took a huge hit” when he looked at his watch during the 1992 debates. And in 2000, Vice President Al Gore never shook the widespread notion that he was wooden and stiff, no matter how soft the stage lighting or how casual his wardrobe. And then there was the sighing thing. Some of the apparent details being belabored for the upcoming three debates between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry may actually be crucial to a candidate’s performance. Or not. It’s not always clear from the outside looking in how a particular proposal fits into the candidate’s strategy. For instance, the Kerry campaign pushed for all three debates proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, one of which would have a town-hall setting. Presumably, the argument goes, Bush may not do as well in a town-hall setting. The president reportedly wanted the first debate to address foreign policy, presumably because of the historic precedent that the first debate is the most watched, and foreign policy questions play to Bush’s strengths, at least according to current polls. But none of this public reasoning may be accurate. For example, Kerry’s team may have wanted three debates simply to tie up the Bush campaign, to get Bush off the road and in a controlled environment for three weeks. Or maybe having or not having three debates wasn’t the point at all. Maybe the Kerry campaign just wanted to build up a buzz that Bush was ducking the debates. Similarly, Bush’s campaign may have preferred that the first debate address foreign affairs to lessen the risk that some future national security stumble could trip him up. Also, he may not have been trying to avoid the town-hall format, as has been speculated; he may simply have hoped to avoid a question from an angry, grieving mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. Couldn’t really blame him for that. HIGH-STAKES TEST In any event, many analysts believe the close contest between President Bush and Sen. Kerry may well be decided in the debates. With the serious national and international issues this country faces, that notion may be overstated. Certainly, any real change in the war on terrorism would have more impact on the election. Nonetheless, both campaigns believe that their candidates have much at stake — Kerry, the opportunity to pull it out and put to rest rumors of flip-flopping; Bush, simply the chance not to screw up his lead. Moreover, almost everyone believes that the majority of the electorate does not really tune in to the presidential campaign until after Labor Day, with the debates following shortly thereafter. Recent studies of the 2000 debates by Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication revealed that debates “don’t necessarily bring about major shifts in voting patterns,” although they do “deepen impressions.” But this year at least one respected news outlet posits that more Americans may watch the first presidential debate than will actually go out and vote on Nov. 2. Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, puts money “on the debates being the next big moment — if not the defining moment — of the campaign.” THE DEVIL YOU KNOW With so much at stake, what is happening in Bush’s rehearsals at his Texas ranch, Camp David, and the White House? What will Kerry be doing in Wisconsin this week while holed up in debate prep? Obviously, the job of the debate preparation team is to make sure that one man, with all his individual strengths and weaknesses, is ready. So the debate team will include those who know the candidate the best — what makes him tick, what pumps him up, what gets under his skin, what drives him forward. One of the biggest challenges President Bill Clinton’s debate team faced in the 1996 campaign was ensuring that the front-running incumbent would take the debates seriously enough. Historically, incumbent presidents in second-term debates have failed to embrace the importance of the event, some to their grave disappointment. So debate team leader Erskine Bowles implored Clinton to read an account of how poorly incumbents who did not earnestly prepare for the debates fared in the succeeding election. Bowles also instructed the other debate team members (myself included) to be relentless, to make it as bad for the president in practice as it might get in reality. The stand-ins — those picked to play the candidate’s opponent — are often the toughest, best-prepared individuals from whom the campaigns can wrangle a couple of months of time. Bush has Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and Kerry has D.C. litigator Greg Craig. In 1996, Clinton faced off against former Sen. George Mitchell in our mock debates. Mitchell had served in the Senate with GOP candidate Bob Dole for some 14 years. He knew Dole well. He knew Dole’s positions. He knew Dole’s mannerisms. He was exceedingly well-prepared by D.C. lawyer-lobbyist-insider Steve Richetti. Mitchell even gripped a pen in one hand. At the time of our preparations, outside observers thought the campaign had planted the story that Mitchell was beating Clinton in the prep sessions in order to lower expectations — sort of what’s happening now with both the Kerry and Bush campaigns trumpeting the masterful debating skills of their respective opponents. But Clinton was not exaggerating when, in a later interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer, he said that during the first mock debates Mitchell “beat my brains out.” Mitchell boxed the president’s ears. “It was ruthless,” Clinton recalled. “They should have called a TKO before it was over — so we practiced and practiced and practiced, and I was, you know, ready to do whatever.” The debate team was tough. But Clinton was earnest, worked hard, and didn’t fire us all. And in the end, whether or not his performance determined the 1996 electoral outcome, he didn’t screw up. If the current campaigns are doing their jobs, something similar is happening in each camp this time too. MEET THE PRESS Besides battling each other, Bush and Kerry will also be fielding questions from the debates’ journalist-moderators. Lehrer, Charles Gibson of ABC, and Bob Schieffer of CBS will moderate the Sept. 30, Oct. 6, and Oct. 13 debates, respectively. The Oct. 5 vice-presidential debate will be run by Gwen Ifill of PBS. All four are experienced and tested moderators, and none want it said afterward that they let the candidates off the hook. So the Bush and Kerry debate teams have been poring over transcripts of the moderators’ previous debates, looking for question patterns and/or lack of patterns. They have also been reviewing the moderators’ current news reports, looking for hot spots, pet peeves, and any lack of journalistic neutrality, both to prepare for and to exploit. In modern times, the candidates usually know and have had much past experience with the moderators, so there are few real surprises in this part of the process or, for that matter, any true arguments about the choice of moderators by the Commission on Presidential Debates. But no campaign wants to let the perfect answer to an anticipatable question slip away. A NIGHT TO REMEMBER In 1996, it was interesting to read press reports about the debates from inside the debate prep process. If past is indeed prologue, this time there will be stories so close to what is actually going on that allegations of leaks will be raised. There will be stories so far off the mark that questions will arise whether the other side is putting out disinformation. No comment on either. And there will be accurate stories being written, but no way to distinguish them from the spin. Interested observers can count on a few things: Their actual performances notwithstanding, Bush and Kerry will be exceedingly well-prepared, both substantively and politically. They have been practicing in some form for weeks, and the briefing books have been substantially prepared for some time. Yet, on that night — or three nights — there will be brilliant, off-the-cuff statements that could not have been rehearsed no matter how hard anyone might have tried. There will be well-tested, thoroughly rehearsed lines that will fall excruciatingly flat. No matter how poised the debate team may appear publicly, they will be sweating bullets. And most of us will remember the one quip, rehearsed or not, that brought down the house. Leslie T. Thornton is a partner at the D.C. office of Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky and a member of the firm’s complex dispute resolution and litigation groups. She was deputy adviser for presidential debates on President Bill Clinton’s 1996 debate team. The views expressed here are her own.

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