- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2012

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

Blunder: Talking down to your opponent. Remember, the other person is running for major office, too, and must be doing something right. “In debates, you expect attacks, aggression, conflict,” Mr. McKinney said. “But do the candidates spar with each other in a way that remains courteous, rather than snarky and belittling? That is beneath what we regard as presidential timber.”

Fool’s gold standard:Mr. Gore’s sighing aside, two examples stand out. During the 1984 vice presidential debate, George H.W. Bush’s continual references to Democratic challenger Geraldine Ferraro as “Mrs.” instead of “Congresswoman” and his offer to explain the nuances of international diplomacy led Ferraro to proclaim, “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.” During a 2008 Democratic primary debate, Hillary Rodham Clinton replied to a moderator’s question about competing with Barack Obama on the basis of “likability” by stating, “That hurts my feelings, but I’ll try to go on. He’s very likable — I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad.” Mr. Obama’s infamous reply, delivered with seemingly dismissive indifference? “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” Shots fired.

Antidote: Show some respect, or at least fake it. Hammer the other candidate in a friendly-seeming way. Be confident, but not a grating know-it-all. And don’t rely on the room to let you know when you’ve gone too far. “Because the debate audience is different than the audience at a campaign stop — nonpartisan and not being audible — you may not understand that you are coming off as condescending,” said University of Michigan debate team coach Aaron Kall. “Then all of a sudden you see it in the social media and the spin rooms that things are getting attention.”

Quotable: “The one moment where maybe being condescending worked, physical rather than verbal, was when Romney put his hand on Perry’s shoulder [during the Republican primaries],” Mr. Lanoue said. “It played to the narrative that Perry was this unprepared schoolboy and Romney had to help him out. It would be an enormous mistake for Romney to do that to Obama.”

Space invading

Blunder: Getting in your opponent’s face.

Fool’s gold standard: A tie. During a 2000 presidential debate, Mr. Gore asked Republican opponent Mr. Bush to offer his opinion on a piece of legislation, then walked halfway across the stage in a seemingly misguided attempt at physical intimidation. Mr. Bush’s response — a nonchalant, ‘sup bro nod — not only defused the moment by making the audience laugh, but also made Mr. Gore look like an awkward dope. In a U.S. Senate debate in New York the same year, Republican candidate Rick Lazio walked over to the podium of Mrs. Clinton and demanded that she sign a pledge against soft money. Pointing and hectoring, Mr. Lazio resembled nothing so much as an over-caffeinated Jerry Maguire, trying desperately to sign the star quarterback. Voters were not impressed.

Antidote: Easy. Just follow the rules. Following Mr. Gore’s debacle, presidential debate organizers decreed that each candidate may “move about in a predesignated area.” “They didn’t have to change the rules,” Mr. Lanoue said with a laugh. “At that point, the rule was ‘Don’t be like Gore.’ I don’t think anyone will try that again.”

Quotable: “I think Gore had done that in a primary debate, too,” Mr. Lanoue said. “I know the Bush people were prepared for that possibility. I think Gore was trying to elicit some kind of inappropriate response from Bush. They assumed he would be nervous. He had a bit of a temper. Maybe he would pop off. But that’s kind of Hail Mary pass territory, not something you do when the polls are tied.”

Lost in (body language) translation

Blunder: Look good to feel good — and if you don’t feel good, look good anyway. Otherwise, voters will notice. “You would like to think that debates are won and scored on points of substance and policy,” Mr. Kall said. “But even in college debates, a lot of times it’s just aesthetics. Nonverbal cues and signals. They matter, because they help create a gut reaction about who performed better.”

Fool’s gold standard: Another tie. In 1960, the first televised presidential debate in history pitted Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon against Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy. Having just spent more than a week in a hospital for knee surgery and a staph infection, Nixon appeared underweight, unshaven, sweaty and ashen; he even refused to wear makeup. By contrast, Kennedy looked tan, rested and perfectly coiffed — famously leading television viewers to conclude that he won the debate, even though radio listeners judged the contest a draw.

“That was Kennedy’s first chance to really show himself on the national stage for the first time since the convention,” Mr. Lanoue said. “He faced questions — is this guy really experienced enough to be president? Is he just an ambitious playboy? His dad’s creation? With his performance and appearance, he was able to answer those concerns. Nixon already was seen in many quarters as a shaky character. He had given the ‘Checkers’ speech. So the fact that he looked awkward and uncomfortable, eyes darting back and forth, may have played into the narrative that he was what Harry S. Truman called him, a ‘shifty-eyed [expletive] liar.’”

In 1992, George H.W. Bush didn’t look suspicious. He looked bored. When an audience member at a town-hall-style debate asked the president how the recession personally affected him, Mr. Bush checked his watch before giving a rambling, impersonal answer — a sharp contrast to Democratic challenger Bill Clinton’s empathetic, feel-your-pain response. “That reinforced the sense among people that Bush was sort of detached, wasn’t engaged,” said John Carroll, a communications professor at Boston University. “Meanwhile, you have Clinton bounding off the stage with this tremendous energy. The country was in a recession, and voters had to ask: Who do I want fighting for me?”

Antidote: Remember what Mom told you: Stand up straight. “You want to maintain good posture and make sure that you are always upright,” Mr. Kall said. “That allows you to do the best breathing, which gives you the best performance. There are a lot of distractions in a debate, but eye contact is very important. You want the judge or the TV audience to think they are the focal point in the room. Only don’t wink like Sarah Palin did [in the 2008 vice presidential debate] — that came off as a little weird.”

Quotable: “The biggest separation between candidates and the biggest dividing point between winners and losers is the people who seemed fully natural and those who didn’t,” Mr. Lanoue said. “Kennedy did, Nixon didn’t. Reagan did, Carter didn’t. The first Bush did more than [Democrat Michael S. Dukakis]. Clinton did, [Bob] Dole and [George W.] Bush didn’t. You need to be as natural as you can be. If you don’t do hand gestures normally, don’t start; otherwise, you’ll look like the old Dana Carvey sendup of the first President Bush.”

The full Stockdale

Blunder: Seeming as though you are utterly unequipped to handle a televised debate, let alone America’s nuclear launch codes.

Fool’s gold standard: Reform Party vice presidential candidate James Stockdale — a retired admiral and Vietnam War hero — opened a 1992 debate with a line so bizarre, so downright dadaist, that “Saturday Night Live” scriptwriters couldn’t have made it up: “Who am I? Why am I here?” Mr. Stockdale spent much of the subsequent debate time pacing back and forth, largely ignored as Vice President Dan Quayle and Mr. Gore, the Democratic challenger, bickered. When moderator Hal Bruno asked Mr. Stockdale a question about “personal negative attacks” in the campaign, the former Navy officer replied, “You know, I didn’t have my hearing aid turned on. Tell me again.” It was that kind of night.

Antidote: Duh. Turn on your hearing aid. Also, make sure you actually want the office you’re running for. A friend of Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot, Mr. Stockdale was supposed to be a only placeholder candidate. A serious academic, author and student of stoicism, he later explained that his infamous opening line was meant to be taken as a humorous philosophical inquiry and not as an expression of doddering cluelessness.

Quotable: Perhaps Mr. Stockdale was wiser than he seemed. Mr. Gore and Mr. Quayle’s incessant verbal combat was widely considered a new low in political debates. After Mr. Stockdale’s comment about his hearing aid, Mr. Bruno reportedly nearly blurted out, “You may be the luckiest man in America.”