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Personality Trumps Brains in Debates

September 06, 2000|DOUG GAMBLE | Doug Gamble has written humor and speech material for Republicans, including Presidents Reagan and Bush

George W. Bush's rejection of the three debates proposed by the bipartisan National Commission on Presidential Debates in favor of three more to his liking makes him look like he's playing peek-a-boo with a purpose.

Recent history, however, shows that the Texas governor should go head to head against Al Gore, in any debate format, with more confidence than might seem justified.

In every presidential debate since 1980 in which the Republican has been seen as the winner, personality trumped brains. When Ronald Reagan faced off against President Carter 20 years ago, Carter was more cerebral and more in command of the nuances of public policy. Yet Reagan won over a majority of voters with an engaging "aw shucks" manner, including a lighthearted "there you go again" when Carter continued to deliberately misrepresent Reagan's record. Few can remember the substance of Reagan's debate arguments, but his quip remains vivid to this day. The Gipper lost the first of two debates with Walter Mondale in 1984 by trying to match his Democratic challenger point for point on details of programs. He switched on the personality in their second encounter, exploding a self-deprecating joke about his age that disarmed Mondale and virtually assured his election victory.

Although technically a better debater than Vice President George Bush, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis lost a 1988 showdown when his personality was found wanting. Asked if he would still oppose the death penalty if his own wife were raped and murdered, the Massachusetts governor launched into a dry, policy-wonk answer that left most viewers cold. Bush, on the other hand, invited by CNN's Bernard Shaw to speculate on how running mate Dan Quayle would do if Bush were to die in office, responded with a mock-exasperated "Bernieee" that sucked the air out of the macabre scenario and presented a vote-influencing contrast between the personalities of the two contenders.

Because modern presidential elections, especially in prosperous times, are decided more by personality than policy and more by the voters' comfort level than the candidates' IQs, Bush would actually hold a debate advantage over Gore. Not since Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 has the candidate with the less-appealing personality won a presidential election. Unless Bush is reduced to a quivering heap of jelly barely able to remember what state he's from, unlikely with his improved performance since February, he may well surprise those who take him lightly against Gore.

Look at the example of boxer Mike Tyson. Tyson's first loss as a professional came when he refused to take Buster Douglas seriously and wound up on the seat of his pants for a 10-count. Likewise, Gore may be prone to underestimating Bush in a debate.

Bush should use his own weaknesses to his advantage. If he commits a verbal gaffe, for example, he might say, "I don't always get my words straight, but I have my priorities straight for this country." A goofy malapropism could be followed with a quip such as, "There I go again." And he could turn Gore's strengths against him with such verbal judo as, "I thought it was great when he kissed his wife at the convention, but if he's elected he'll kiss off real tax cuts, kiss off educational reform, kiss off rebuilding the military."

In a society that values style over substance, Bush shouldn't be trying to fight Gore in out-of-the-way venues. He should be stepping into the ring in the debate equivalents of Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden.

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