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CAMPAIGN 2000

Debaters Strive to Deflect the Unexpected

Politics: No nit is too small to pick, and no advantage is squandered, in the days and hours leading up to televised face-offs between candidates.

March 01, 2000|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The science of preparing for a presidential debate has come a long way since John F. Kennedy sat at a kitchen table in his shirt sleeves with a pile of 3-by-5 cards and a couple of aides lobbing questions.

Nothing today, not even the color of a necktie, is left to chance.

Al Gore, known as a ferocious debater, spent three hours at a Los Angeles studio Tuesday rehearsing for tonight's match with Bill Bradley. Last month in New York, the vice president jogged around in the basement of the Sheraton Hotel and took a Harlem stage, as an aide put it, "pumped."

George W. Bush will cut short his campaign appearances to be briefed by his circle of experts before Thursday's GOP debate; then the Texas governor will likely go for a run and take a nap.

Haggling Over Smallest Details

In the hours leading up to pre-primary contests in Los Angeles, campaign negotiators will haggle over everything from the angle of the camera to the shape of the chairs to the color of the filter--red? blue? yellow?--that covers the lights. Stand-ins are rehearsing to play the opponent. Aides are concocting prepackaged zingers ready for hurling at first opportunity. Wives are standing by to make last-minute inspections for unruly strands of hair or bits of lunch left in the teeth.

So intense is the scrutiny of these televised match-ups--and this primary season has seen more of them than any other--that many agree even a debater of Abraham Lincoln's legendary stature would struggle under the glare of today's hot lights and high expectations.

"What debates have become today is part of the hazing of running for the office of president of the United States," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political science professor at Claremont Graduate University. "The most important strategy--particularly in California because it's bigger and more media-driven--is to do no harm."

Little did Kennedy or his rival, Richard Nixon, know it when they took part in that first live televised debate in 1960, but they were standing on the precipice of a seminal event that would shape modern campaigning into the next century. What has most endured from that contest is not what was said, but the flickering black-and-white image of the contestants as they said it: a pasty, sweating Nixon, in pain with a leg injury, toe to toe with a robust, youthful, confident Kennedy.

Many listening on the radio thought Nixon had won it, while those watching on television gave it to Kennedy, driving home the lesson that how a candidate looks can be more important than what he says, and thus giving birth to the modern obsession with minutia.

"We wanted podiums because sitting in a chair doesn't look good, it leads to awkward shots, bad visuals. Podiums look more presidential," said Bill Dal Col, campaign manager for publisher Steve Forbes, who dropped out of the GOP race last month. "How is the stage lit? Could our guy get in to see if it was up to our standards? If Camera 3 covers Forbes, will the red light be on so he knows? You have to get those details . . . "

The sometimes-paltry ratings that debates attract--cartoon shows can draw more viewers--belie what's at stake as voters watch live and unfiltered. A dart can live in political lore, a gaffe in infamy, as the sound loop is played and replayed long after the mikes are turned off.

Few people saw the 1988 Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle vice presidential debate, but many are familiar with the famous line: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." Or Walter F. Mondale to Gary Hart in 1984: " 'Where's the beef?' " Or Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter in 1980: "There you go again . . . "

But for nearly every artful jab there is a self-inflicted wound. Such as when Reagan's handlers cluttered his head with too many statistics in 1984; he lost track of time in his closing statement, a visual journey up the coast of California that appeared to trail off weirdly somewhere around Ojai. Or when George Bush the elder was caught glancing at his watch in 1992, a faux pas candidates are still reminded of.

"We tell them, never look at your watch," Dal Col said, reciting the rules. "And you're not off camera until we come on stage and tell you you're off camera. And if your opponent comes up to you, stand up, don't back up."

Failure to know the material can be as damaging as bad body language. Arguably, the younger Bush's inability to name the president of Taiwan last fall has hurt him in the eyes of some voters as much as his uncontrollable smirk.

"They need to put a piece of tape on his face during practice, then every time he smirked he could feel it and he'd know when to stop," said Jackson Bain, a former NBC correspondent who coaches foreign candidates and CEOs in the art of televised appearances.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Bain noted, has a penetrating smile when he is genuinely happy, but when he isn't smiling, "he looks like he might explode."

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