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CAPITOL JOURNAL

TV Debates' Drama Is Not Just on the Air

May 23, 1994|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — If you're a political candidate, there's a basic drill for preparing to debate the enemy on television:

* Determine your main message to viewers and program yourself to always return to it like a mantra, no matter the question. Thus, if Treasurer Kathleen Brown is asked about gang violence, she blames Gov. Pete Wilson for the loss of 500,000 jobs and pledges to create 1 million new ones when she's elected governor.

* Determine your vulnerability and prepare a defense. So if Brown is asked about her opposition to the death penalty, she can respond with something more reassuring than: "That's irrelevant because I intend to enforce the law."

* Devise a wild card to play at an opportune moment. And be alert for your opponent's sudden use of a wild card. For example, have in reserve a catchy sound bite such as Walter F. Mondale's 1984 retort to Sen. Gary Hart: "Where's the beef?" And, if you're Hart, don't then look like a deer in headlights.

There also are other lessons learned from over the years, such as don't sweat (Richard Nixon, 1960) and don't look at your watch (George Bush, 1992).

A televised debate can be a defining event for a candidate and be pivotal in an election, although not necessarily. More often, despite the hoopla, it's just a 24-hour story.

An exception was the 1990 gubernatorial debate between Republican Wilson and Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Wilson captured the headlines, defined himself as a candidate of change and forever alienated Democratic legislators by unexpectedly endorsing the term limits initiative.

This week, a trio of gubernatorial debates--bunched on successive days like no others before--may help define the candidates for voters, but likely won't be pivotal in the June 7 Democratic primary.

*

Brown is running so far ahead--by 19 points in the latest Field Poll--that she probably could stand with her back to the camera and still not be caught by Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi with only two weeks left in the race. Brown has the same two advantages she's always had: Unlimited funds for TV ads, while Garamendi campaigns hand-to-mouth, and a Democratic electorate dominated by women who support her 2 to 1.

To use a football metaphor, Garamendi needs to complete a long bomb for a touchdown--then recover an onside kick. Conversely, Brown seems to have approached these debates as a quarterback with only one play in mind: Bunch the line, take the snap, kneel and run out the clock.

Brown--who as front-runner pretty much dictated the game rules--crammed the three debates within a 43-hour period. The first two are tonight in Sacramento and Tuesday night in San Francisco, both televised locally. The third will be Wednesday afternoon on Los Angeles talk radio, moderated by KABC's Michael Jackson. The bunching assures that if Brown fumbles in one of the first two debates, she has a chance to quickly recover in the next.

Her strategists also tried to prevent live telecasting statewide by forbidding the host TV station from making its signal available in other cities. That caused such an embarrassing uproar that the Brown camp caved on the San Francisco debate and is allowing out-of-town stations to telecast it. But the Sacramento debate still will be blacked out elsewhere. The Los Angeles radio debate will be taped by C-SPAN for later viewing.

The Brown camp spin is that it wanted each debate to be "regional." But the conclusion of neutral political pros is that Brown's handlers are afraid she isn't quite ready for prime time. They wanted to start her show on the road before bringing it to Broadway in the fall.

As for the third debate participant, state Sen. Tom Hayden of Santa Monica, he's just happy to finally get some playing time. He really isn't running for governor; he's running for attention. And starting tonight he'll get it.

*

Fortunately, I'm not a campaign consultant. But if I were, I'd advise Brown not to worry about fumbling, be bold and run right at Wilson. This is a priceless opportunity to kick him down the field and begin building momentum for the general election.

Voters, however, want more than just her sterile plan for creating 1 million jobs. That's fine, but they also hunger for some sincere passion about restoring the California good life.

I'd have gambled and gotten this on every TV set possible because Brown's the most telegenic California politician since Ronald Reagan.

Garamendi should take his best shot at her, but exit on the high road with sights set on a Cabinet post in Washington.

Of course, that's the view of an uninvolved spectator with the luxury of being able to enjoy it all--if not always on television.

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