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Blunder: There’s no crying in politics. (Just ask Edmund Muskie.) On the other hand, the public doesn’t want leaders who come across like Mr. Spock with a flag lapel pin. Cool, calm and collected is good; cold, clinical and detached is not.

Fool’s gold standard: In 1988, then-CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis the most infamous question in presidential debate history: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Given a golden opportunity to belie his aloof, cerebral public image — as well as Republican efforts to paint him as soft on crime — Mr. Dukakis instead gave the most infamous answer in presidential debate history, brief and unhesitating, delivered with the passion of a recited grocery list: “No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!

Antidote: Bad news — projecting warmth and empathy isn’t that easy. “It’s something that you have or you don’t,” Mr. Lanoue said. “Later in the Dukakis-Bush debate, there was a point where he said, ‘Kitty and I love you.’ And it was almost cringe-inducing. It was like, OK, you’ve been told to show warmth, so warmth program commencing in … three, two, one. It’s hard to be someone you’re not.”

Quotable: During a 1976 vice presidential debate, Republican Bob Dole said of Vietnam that “if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be … enough to fill the city of Detroit.” Two decades before he grouched his way through debates against President Clinton, Mr. Dole already had his grumpy old man act down pat.

Canned corn

Blunder: Heading into this year’s first presidential debate, Mr. Romney reportedly was preparing zingers. And why not? The temptation to drop a pitch-perfect bon mot can be irresistible, particularly when effective ones — like Mr. Reagan’s “There you go again” to President Carter — are long remembered. Problem is, having a rapier wit is hard — and a misplayed one-liner can leave you looking lame, if not completely groan-worthy. Remember George H.W. Bush’s 1988 rejoinder that one of Mr. Dukakis’ answers was “about as clear as Boston Harbor”? We’re still trying to forget.

Fool’s gold standard: In a 2008 Democratic primary debate, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton let loose the Dogs of Zing by attacking Mr. Obama’s use of campaign-speech passages first uttered by Massachusetts governor and friend Deval Patrick, telling the Illinois senator that “lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not the change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox.” Her reward? The audience booed, while Mr. Obama winningly dismissed the charge as indicative of a political “silly season” that the public could do without.

Antidote: Leave the jokes to the late-night talk hosts. Otherwise, practice ahead of time. Hone your best material. And during the actual debate, exercise extreme judiciousness. “The effective zinger is the one that fits, but also doesn’t seem scripted,” said Mitchell McKinney, a communications professor at the University of Missouri and co-author of three books on presidential campaign rhetoric. “Don’t force it. You have to wait for it to come to you. Reagan was great at that.”

Quotable: “People’s preconceptions of you matter,” Mr. Carroll said. “Romney is not Louis C.K., you know? He can’t really go and present himself that way. Obama has more of a wisecracking image, is cooler in the public eye. So it fits his personality a little more. On the other hand, if Romney can pull off an attempt at humor, then the element of surprise works to his advantage. Playing against type could give it more impact.”

Leading with your chin

Blunder: Knowing your political weaknesses. Knowing that your opponent knows said weaknesses. Ignoring that knowledge and giving opponent a fat, easy target.

Fool’s gold standard: In a 1988 vice presidential debate, Republican candidate Dan Quayle likened himself to John Kennedy, handing Democratic opponent Lloyd Bentsen an opening to land perhaps the greatest one-line podium punch of the last quarter-century: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Antidote: Keep your verbal hands up. And, for that matter, down. Make sure your debate prep team throws every possible low blow at you during practice. “It’s clear that Quayle was trying to answer the criticism that he was unprepared and had very little experience,” Mr. Lanoue said. “He was not saying he was equal of JFK. He was saying you can succeed with little experience. But the second Bentsen delivered that line, it was clear that somebody should have anticipated that.” Indeed. Mr. Quayle already had been making JFK references on the campaign trail, essentially supplying his opponent with a verbal pair of weighted gloves.

Quotable: “We do a lot of videotaping of our opponents from previous debates,” Mr. Kall said. “Watching them in the past is the best predictor of what they will do in the future. You prepare for what they might do and what your response will be. And it’s not just one step you need. It’s like chess. You need to think several moves ahead.”

Questionable questioning

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