Debating for Dummies: How to survive a live debate without that defining blunder

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If there is a lesson to be drawn from President Obama’s lackluster performance in this year’s first presidential debate it’s this: A whole lot can go wrong.

Oh, sure, candidates practice. Hone their messages. Bone up on heartstring-pulling stories from the campaign trail and statistics that sound impressive.

When the cameras are on, however, mistakes can be made. Political scientists generally agree that debates by themselves don’t influence many voters, but they can make a difference in tight races, such as the current one.

With Mr. Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney set to square off at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., for their final debate, The Washington Times presents a guide to debate blunders — and how to avoid them.

Going rogue

Blunder: From repetitive stump speeches to hyper-organized, advertorial conventions to tightly controlled press interviews, campaign politics is a high-stakes game of disciplined stage and message management. Yet during the debates — no teleprompters, no lifelines — candidates occasionally find themselves ad-libbing, which seldom ends well.

Fool’s gold standard: When Mr. Romney extended his hand and jokingly challenged Texas Gov. Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet during a Republican primary debate, the stunt fell flat and unwittingly reinforced every negative image of the former Massachusetts governor as an out-of-touch plutocrat, his greatest political shortcoming.

Antidote: Stick to the script. If the teleprompter was good enough for Ronald Reagan — a former actor who had, you know, professional experience with verbal improvisation — then it’s good enough for you. “One of the reasons you rehearse so much is so that you won’t have these moments,” said Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University and author of “Road to the White House.” “You’ve answered these questions 100 times before. So you’re not thinking. You just give the answer that you’re supposed to give.”

Quotable: “Being under the gun on national TV for 90 minutes takes tremendous concentration and focus, even for professional politicians,” said David Lanoue, a dean at Columbus State University and co-author of “The Joint Press Conference: The History, Impact, and Prospects of American Presidential Debates.” “So I’m guessing Romney’s $10,000 bet was spontaneous. If it wasn’t, somebody needs to be fired.”

Too-candid camera

Blunder: Forgetting the cardinal rule of modern, reality TV-ified life — the camera is always, always watching. And listening. Even when it isn’t your turn to speak.

Fool’s gold standard: During a 2000 presidential debate, Democrat Al Gore rolled his eyes and sighed repeatedly, loudly and obnoxiously while Republican George W. Bush gave his answers. How bad was the fallout? Bad enough that aides made Mr. Gore watch the inevitable “Saturday Night Live” sketch before a subsequent debate. It also was bad enough that even the left-leaning “The Daily Show” made major fun of Mr. Gore.

Antidote: Remember where you are, but don’t get caught up in the moment — neither of which is easy. “Candidates are used to being on camera, but the big difference in the debates is that they’re not used to being on the same stage with their opponents,” said Mitchell McKinney, a communications professor at the University of Missouri and co-author of three books about presidential campaign rhetoric. “This is the only moment that they are literally within arm’s reach. So they’re responding to one another. They have these nonverbal tics that are a tell. They’re disgusted. They don’t want to be there. That has gotten some of them in trouble.”

Quotable: “With Gore, I don’t think he realized the mic was hot the entire time,” Mr. Lanoue said. “You were hearing Gore as he really felt. That didn’t go over well. It was annoying to listen to.”

Stooping to condescend

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