Debate experts handicap tonight’s debate

Like the candidates, Alan Justice is also preparing for tonight's debate at the University of Mississippi.
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Like the candidates, Alan Justice is also preparing for tonight’s debate at the University of Mississippi.

John McCain plans to attend tonight’s presidential debate with Barack Obama after all, raising this question: In the midst of a major crisis in Washington, how will the candidates do?

This evening’s debate was supposed to focus on foreign policy, but at this point it would be all but impossible to keep the economy out of a debate that has been overshadowed by partisan divisions holding up a Wall Street bailout plan.

At a time the nation is already a little confused about what’s going on in Washington, Obama’s going to have to watch his tendency to ramble. And with everyone worried about their financial future, John McCain can’t appear wooden and uncaring at the podium.

That’s the kind of thing the presidential candidates have likely been hearing for weeks as they’ve prepped for their first presidential debate. At least that’s what a trio of local debate experts said in interviews about how McCain and Obama will try to win your heart, mind and vote. 

Doug Kelley, who has helped GOP candidates prepare for debates, Dave Lillehaug, a debate tutor for Democratic candidates, and Peter Nikolai, coach for St. Paul Central High School’s debate team, all also attorneys, assessed the presidential candidates’ strengths and weakness in the art of persuasion.

(They also reminisced some about debates past: the “Saturday Night Live” parodies of the Bush-Gore debates, the creation of that “strategery” word and the famous laugh line 73-year-old Ronald Reagan used against Walter Mondale to counter the age factor: “I won’t hold your age and inexperience against you.” Check out past debates, dating back to the 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy.)

Kelley, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former chief of staff for Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger and who helped coach Durenberger for senatorial debates in 1988, said Obama needs to show more emotion, especially during these uncertain times. He’s sometimes “so cerebral that he doesn’t connect with people…”  Kelley is helping Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman gear up for a debate with Democrat Al Franken and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley Oct. 5.

‘Podium is not his friend’
McCain, Kelley said, needs to incorporate the strength of his town hall, one-on-one style into the formal debate setting where “the podium is not his friend.” He’s got to be “less wooden at the podium and more expressive.”  

Lillehaug, former U.S. attorney and a U.S. Senate candidate in 2000, has offered debating advice to Vice President Walter Mondale, Sens. Paul Wellstone and Amy Klobuchar, candidates Skip Humphrey and Al Franken. Lillehaug said debate audiences will  “look to see if Barack Obama shows the strength required to be commander and chief,” especially in challenging economic and international times and whether his manner and attitude will “make people comfortable.”

As to McCain, Lillehaug said, anything that “suggests his age and temperament are in question, will be a serious problem for him,” McCain, who just turned 72, has been faulted for a ferocious temper.

Nikolai comes at debates from a slightly different direction. He’s used to teaching high school students to break down speeches into bits and pieces, evaluating debaters in terms of delivery, focus, clarity and evidence to support their claims. 

Although he doesn’t discount the power of emotion, as a debate coach he’ll look for the best policy argument,  though the usual abbreviated television format “doesn’t afford much time to flesh out what the positions are.”

Still, in the end, in-depth views on the issues may not be all that important in this setting.  “When most voters go to the voting booth I don’t think in their heart of hearts they’re voting on the issue. What they’re really voting for is someone they have common ground with, a speaker who speaks to their values,” Nikolai said.

It’s the wording, delivery and framing of issues that determine whether the audience identifies with you, he said.

Nikolai cited an example. At the Democratic Convention in August, former President Bill Clinton framed the election as hinging on two important issues: the United States’ standing in the world and the strength of our economy.

If Obama makes a similar point, Nikolai said, McCain could counter argue with: “How France perceives us is not nearly as important as our military strength.”

Obama might retort: “Our prestige in the world helps us get things done.”

“The truth of the matter is that both sides are right. You need both.” But you have to make the argument which appeals to your supporters, Nikolai said.

Nikolai will be watching McCain, whom he called a “very experienced debater,” to see if he is “bland and dull and loses his audience,” as he has sometimes done. “If he has that kind of delivery in the debate, that could be a pitfall for him. Also he has a reputation for a temper. People sometimes like to see a little temper in a candidate, but he’s got to look presidential.”

And Obama, Nikolai said, though he is known for “rhetorical flourishes when he’s able to give a monologue, in a debate tends to ramble. I think he needs to be more precise and focused.”

Big enterprise
Presidential debate preparation is now big enterprise, Lillehaug said, starting with “lawyered” debate negotiations that cover major matters and small details down to such things as lighting, the height of podiums and even their locations.

Each candidate’s staff prepares a debate prep notebook and a strategy memo outlining the candidate’s overall message and tone, he said, so the candidate can “get his arms around what the goal of debating is going to be.”

Extensive research on the issues gets “boiled down to short bullet points on each subject that the candidate has to learn,” Kelley explained.

Then it’s time to rehearse. Simulated debate sessions are as realistic as possible, with a colleague playing the opponent and the whole thing being video-taped and then played back as a learning exercise, Kelley said.  Words, facial expressions and body language are critiqued, he said. 

Such practice debates often don’t go well for the candidate, much like dress rehearsal for a play, Lillehaug said, yet it is “important psychologically for the candidate to pretend to be against the opponent before going on stage.”

Temperament is important, as well, Lillehaug said, sharing one story about Wellstone, known to be a “heated, animated, loud” debater accustomed to large audiences.

Lillehaug sat him down to watch a video of a primary debate where Wellstone and another candidate were in overheated debate, then asked him, “Alright, you’re sitting in your living room. What do you want to do with those two debaters?”

“I want to throw them out,” Lillehaug recalled Wellstone saying

Cynthia Boyd writes on education, health, social issues and other topics. She can be reached at

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