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Who Gives a Hoot : At Tonight's Debate, Certainly the Live Audience, Which Is Becoming as Big a Player as the Candidates

October 13, 1988|PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writer

"Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate? Our guy! Our guy! Our guy!"

Dan Quayle was miffed.

In the last week, in cities throughout the South, the Republican vice presidential candidate has huffed angrily that someone had been "sneering at the notion of an entire world envying our nation."

That someone was not Lloyd Bentsen. It was not Michael Dukakis.

It was the live, in-studio audience at last week's vice presidential debate, partisans who snickered at Quayle's remark about an America that prospers by making Hondas here to ship back to Japan, an America that is "the envy of the world."

Of course, they snickered at Bentsen too. In fact they sniggered, hooted, groaned or cheered at least 15 times, rowdy enough on three occasions to be scolded to silence like eraser-throwing fourth-graders.

So who are those guys? And why are they behaving like they're on "Family Feud"?

It is no mistake. This is not an audience that accidentally wandered into the wrong arena on the way to a cockfight.

A Crucial Difference

What is different is that more debate tickets than ever before--at least two-thirds--are in the hands of the campaigns, officials say. (A dozen years ago, when televised debates started up again, at most about 25% of the tickets were given to both candidates combined.)

And some of the people in the hall, in the latest debate especially, became so ardently partisan and so vocal that one expert likened them to a sitcom laugh-track, an intrusive punctuation that, almost as much as what the debaters say, can govern how millions of TV viewers--and voters--perceive the debates,

Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who has attended both debates, calls them "hooters," whatever their political stripe, "uncharitable, unsociable oafs up there whooping and snorting . . . a bunch of people who wanted to mess things up."

There is no indication that tonight will be much more sedate, when Pauley Pavilion--site of a lot of partisan conflict of a different sort--hosts the second and last presidential debate. During the first, in a university chapel in North Carolina, the bell had scarcely rung when both Dukakis and George Bush came out swinging their one-liners: Bush, "the Joe Isuzu" of candidates, and Dukakis, offering answers "as murky as Boston Harbor."

Boo. Hiss.

Tonight, as millions watch on television, about 2,000 guests--two-thirds of them campaign contributors, staff, volunteers and boosters--will observe the debate from seats on opposite sides of the aisle, "kind of like a wedding," Dukakis spokesman Mark Gearan says.

They are family and friends, fellow politicians, "fat cat" campaign donors, and workers and volunteers there as a reward, "in part" a thank-you for support or money, Bush and Dukakis staffers say.

A Bit of Recognition

A debate ticket is "one nice way you can recognize people who've helped you," says Commission on Presidential Debates executive director Janet Brown.

"Not a great deal of the general public goes to these things," says Robert Neuman of the commission, which distributes many of its tickets to local officials, civic leaders and debate volunteers. (The newly formed bipartisan commission took over as sponsor when the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, after 12 years, washed its hands of the debates after the campaigns insisted on ground rules the league said "perpetrate a fraud on the American public.")

One debate insider said that in 1984, some Bush staffers wooed contributors on the promise of debate tickets that would put them "next to Mrs. Bush," only to find to their pique that their allotted seats were scattered throughout the auditorium, which provoked much moving around of chairs.

For the campaigns, the benefit of a partisan audience is obvious. "It certainly provides a good buoy for the candidates," says Neuman, who explained that each lectern is canted, and the candidate can look past the panel of questioners toward "his" cheering section.

"I think they derive great strength and support from having friends there," Gearan said.

So what's the problem? What's a campaign without cheerleaders and flag factories? What's wrong with a little team spirit?

'It's Become Sport'

Because, Peggy Lampl says, this is supposed to be a debate, not a rally. "It's become sport, in the competitiveness. And everybody's waiting for the quarterback to be intercepted or throw for the touchdown. It's 'Meet the Press' formats with cheering sections," says Lampl, former executive director of the League of Women Voters, who steered the 1976 debates--the first since the famous Kennedy-Nixon encounters of 1960, which were held in a TV studio with no audience.

The persona of "audience" can become the third debater, at times making news with the candidates. News "bites" from the last debate--often showing Bentsen telling Quayle, "You're no Jack Kennedy"--usually include the storm of audience cheers.

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