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Key to debate win: more spontaneity

Both Bush and Gore have strategies, but one expert says they will probably do better if they don't prepare too much.

By SARA FRITZ and TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 2, 2000


WASHINGTON -- No politician can be faulted for doing everything possible to get ready for the single most important event of his career. But if history tells us anything, the biggest mistake both Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush will make in connection with Tuesday night's first presidential debate is being too prepared.

The intensity of their preparation was apparent this weekend, as both presidential candidates huddled with their advisers and their debate briefing books in remote locations.

Bush held his practice sessions at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he ran through a mock debate or two and held "pepper drills": fielding questions fired at him by aides. Gore is preparing at the Mote Marine Laboratory, an independent, non-profit research facility on Longboat Key.

According to Alan Schroeder, author of a new book on the history of presidential debates, presidential candidates usually do better without too much preparation. For example, he noted that viewers found Ross Perot "so refreshing" in 1992 when he showed up without ever practicing what he was going to say.

In post-debate interviews, many previous presidential candidates have underscored this point, saying they wished they had gone into the debate with less preparation and more spontaneity.

Nevertheless, Schroeder predicts Bush and Gore will arrive at the University of Massachusetts debate in Boston simply brimming with memorized facts, carefully scripted responses to all anticipated questions and even practiced ad libs.

"Almost all candidates know that the best debaters are those who have relaxed and lightened up," he said, "and yet they are paranoid about relaxing (because) this is the biggest moment of their careers. They know they are being seen by more people than have ever watched them on television before."

In their practice sessions, according to Schroeder, the best thing both candidates can do is focus on shoring up their weaknesses.

For Bush, that means gaining enough of a mastery of all policy matters "so he is certain that he does not display any hesitation." In other words, the Texas governor must be prepared to overcome voter fears that he is not familiar or comfortable with complex national issues.

According to his advisers, Bush is expected to pursue three broad goals during the debate:

Let his congenial personality come through to contrast with Gore's stiffness.

Bush is not expected to attack the vice president even as he defends his own programs and criticizes Gore's. His supporters point to his performance against then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1994, when she repeatedly attacked him while he remained calm and repeated his priorities.

Defend his record in Texas and promote his proposals for tax cuts, relying on insurers and HMOs to provide prescription drug coverage for seniors and allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts.

Raise doubts about Gore's credibility, a continuation of the theme he has pursued over the past week.

"What people are looking for in this debate is, what would the next four years be like under a President Bush versus under a President Gore," said Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director.

While Bush wants to show a command of the details, Gore's task is precisely the opposite.

A seasoned debater with an encyclopedic memory for detail, the vice president must try to avoid portraying himself as a policy wonk. As Schroeder sees it, Gore's job is "scaling down on the detail and embracing broader themes" that are more likely to connect with the experience of real people.

In fact, in order to keep his focus on the concerns of real people, Gore has invited some of them to join him on his debate preparation retreat and travel with him to the debate in Boston. He hosted a luncheon Sunday at Charley's Crab restaurant on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota with about a dozen guests, people he has met from around the country who are serving as informal debate advisers. One of them is 76-year-old retiree Joyce Martin of Clearwater, who met Gore last week in St. Petersburg.

Katherine Cowan of Portland, Ore., told reporters later that she believed the group's suggestions were taken seriously by the vice president.

"It's hard to believe that they would go to this much trouble to use us as only props," she said.

Today, the vice president will lead another public discussion with seniors.

"Vice President Gore does not look at a debate as one person versus another person," said his communications chief, Mark Fabiani. "He looks at it as an opportunity to communicate directly with the people."

While Gore may try to gloss over some of the specifics of his highly detailed proposals, he will also be pressing Bush to disclose the details of his proposals. In particular, according to Fabiani, Gore will press Bush to explain how he will fund Social Security after he takes an estimated $1-trillion from the system to fund private investment accounts.

As usual, each of the candidates chose a single person to act as a stand-in for their opponent in the practice sessions. Gore selected political consultant Paul Begala, who has the same affable personality as Bush. Bush chose Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and the pair worked over the weekend from lecterns that the Texas governor's advisers made certain were the same height as those that will be used Tuesday: 48 inches.

Bush aides say Gregg has the vice president's speech patterns and attitude down pat. "He has studied enough to come across as very condescending to most people," Bush spokesman Tucker Eskew said.

Both Bush and Gore are playing the game of lowered expectations. With Gore having more debate experience, Bush supporters are talking up Gore and downplaying their candidate.

"The expectations are so high for Al Gore," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said. "They have been bragging so much, I think as long as we hold our own and explain our ideas and our visions, we'll be fine."

Doug Hattaway, spokesman for the Gore campaign, charged that Bush's staff "has been working overtime to lower expectations for the governor." He added: "The fact is Gov. Bush has been a good debater -- he was a good debater against Ann Richards, and she's no slouch as a debater."

The Boston debate is the first of three for the presidential candidates. The other two will be held Oct. 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Oct. 17 in St. Louis. While all three debates will use different formats, the first will be held in a traditional setting with both men standing behind side-by-side lecterns, answering questions posed by one man: Jim Lehrer, host of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on PBS.

Schroeder said the two opponents, who have been trading sharply worded barbs for the past several weeks, must tone down their rhetoric for the debate. "When they are standing a few feet apart," he said, "they need to depersonalize their criticism of each other . . . if they are going to engage in a civilized debate."

In recent years, the candidates have come prepared with rehearsed put-downs of each other.

In 1980, for example, Ronald Reagan effectively used a prepared line -- "There you go again!" -- to good-naturedly turn aside criticism from his opponent, President Jimmy Carter.

"We expected he will have some of the best lines Hollywood can write during the debate," Hughes said, in a dig at Gore's ties to the entertainment industry. "But we believe Gov. Bush will more than hold his own by speaking from his heart."

Schroeder said he thinks these prepared "zingers" have become overused and they are less effective now that the audience knows they are not spontaneous.

"I'm not sure that zingers are here to stay," he said.

Indeed, with each new debate, the accepted formula for winning changes.

"The art of preparing for a presidential debate is very complicated," Schroeder said. "There have been many attempts to figure out a foolproof recipe. But that's not how debates are won or lost."

Presidential Debate 1

Day: Tuesday, Oct. 3

Where: University of Massachusetts, Boston

When: 9 p.m.

Format: Candidates standing at podiums

Moderator: PBS' Jim Lehrer

Networks broadcasting: CBS, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, C-Span

Vice Presidential debate

Day: Thursday, Oct. 5

Where: Danville, Ky.

When: 9 p.m.

Format: Candidates seated at a table

Moderator: CNN's Bernard Shaw

Networks broadcasting: CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, C-Span

Presidential Debate 2

Day: Wednesday, Oct. 11

Where: Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.

When: 9 p.m.

Format: Candidates seated at a table

Moderator: Lehrer

Networks broadcasting: CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, C-Span

Presidential Debate 3

Day: Tuesday, Oct. 17

Where: Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

When: 9 p.m.

Format: Town meeting

Moderator: Lehrer

Networks broadcasting: CBS, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, C-Span

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