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Debates might prompt you to reconsider

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 1998

Canet Brown, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, offers this advice for debate watchers: Don't expect Entertainment Tonight.

Debates are supposed to be more than a series of quips. The idea is to get a feel for who would make the best U.S. senator or governor, not who would be the best stand-up comic.

The commission and other debate experts offer several helpful hints for viewers. Among them:

Set aside partisan views.

Republicans should not listen only to Senate candidate Charlie Crist and gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush. The same goes for Democrats who support Sen. Bob Graham and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay. Use debates to learn as much as possible about the positions of all candidates. It may reaffirm your conclusions or cause you to reconsider your decision.

Identify the candidates' debate strategy.

Notice whether they directly answer questions and present new information, or whether they avoid the questions to push their own agenda.

If MacKay is asked about his plans to reduce class sizes, does he explain how he will pay for it or attack Bush for supporting vouchers for private tuition?

If Crist is asked about his plans for the federal budget surplus, does he respond directly or attack Graham for votes on taxes?

Pay close attention to the candidates when they talk about solving problems.

While Bush and MacKay clearly differ on education and gun control issues, it will take sharp listeners to find the difference in their approaches to reforming health care and rebuilding inner cities.

A good barometer, Brown said, is to ask yourself this question: "Do they seem to actually understand what they want to do, and can they articulate it clearly?"

In both debates, viewers will see articulate candidates who are accustomed to the spotlight and unlikely to stumble badly. Graham and Crist are particularly smooth talkers, capable of talking at length without saying much specific. Bush has similar skills; MacKay fumbled his opening statement in an earlier debate but can perform much better.

"This is the place where they can be challenged on the issues, and how they respond will tell you a lot about how they can respond in situations where they don't have a lot of time," said Marsha Vanderford, who teaches debate at the University of South Florida.
Conventional wisdom says Crist and MacKay will be the aggressors. Both are behind, and the debates offer an opportunity to plant doubts in voters' minds about their opponents. With Graham and Bush holding commanding leads, watch for them to be more cautious in an effort to avoid mistakes.

And yes, there is a place for humor and memorable lines.

The only phrase anyone remembers from the final 1994 gubernatorial debate is the Lawton Chiles line: "The old he-coon walks just before the light of day."

Loose translation: The smart leader knows how to win a fight and waits for the right moment to pounce.

The use of the phrase said volumes about Chiles' Florida roots and political experience, even if relatively few people grasped its full meaning. It also flustered Bush, who had never sought public office before.

But Brown suggested the savvy voter should not base his or her conclusions about debates on one snappy line.

"While there is a place for humor, it isn't meant to be a series of one-liners or gotcha comments," she said. "The question is, have they made it clear why you should vote for them and what they would do in office?"


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