Debate tips

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The debate-that-almost-wasn’t will happen tonight. Some observers contend that telegenic Sen. Barack Obama will easily trump Sen. John McCain, likening it to the presidential debates almost five decades ago when a breezy JFK bested a wincing Richard Nixon. But at least one Hollywood academe thinks Mr. McCain has an edge on the dais.

“People might expect Obama to have the edge in this rhetorical setting, but the debates typically involve shorter answers and a greater need to clearly define one’s positions. Obama’s strengths in longer, more detailed speech settings didn’t really translate into dominant performances in the Democratic primary debates,” said Gordon Stables, a speech professor at the University of Southern California and coach of the campus debate squad.

“Most polls give the current edge to Obama, so he has an incentive to uphold the current trends in the campaign. He doesn’t need to make up lost ground, so it is unlikely that he will attempt to dominate the debates or try to force McCain into a gaffe. Obama’s primary tasks are to overcome arguments about his experience by retaining a presidential demeanor and to focus on providing clear, precise answers. If he becomes too abstract or seems to struggle with the format, it could be interpreted as a failure,” he said.

Mr. McCain must be aggressive, authoritative — but no bully.

“Because most polling data suggests he is several points behind Obama, he has a greater incentive to confront Obama and attempt to highlight their differences, especially on questions of experience. If McCain can be confrontational and still presidential, he’ll make a good showing. He will need to be forceful without losing his temper,” Mr. Stables added. “Presidential character requires that candidates possess a strong will but an ability to remain calm under pressure.”

– Jennifer Harper, National Desk reporter

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