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Polite prelude to the debates

Presidential rivals try to lower expectations and gain an edge with praise for the opponent's skill.

September 29, 2004|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

In the eyes of his opponents, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry may be a flip-flopping, French-loving liberal, but they can't heap enough praise on the man's talents as a debater. The senator from Massachusetts is not merely great, according to President Bush's top strategist, Matthew Dowd, he is "the best debater since Cicero."

And while Kerry might see the president as a reckless, self-satisfied cowboy, you can't believe how highly he thinks of Bush's rhetorical skills. "He's won every debate he's ever had," Kerry has said repeatedly in the last few weeks. "He beat Ann Richards. He beat Al Gore. People need to understand that."

As predictable as a cicada mating fest, a mutual admiration society consisting of presidential rivals and their mouthpieces bursts forth ever so briefly once every four years. Candidates who have spent months brutalizing each other suddenly in September can't be kind enough.

The expectations game is a transparent yet irresistible ploy to create a psychological advantage going into the debates.

On Tuesday, in a conference call with reporters, Bush's campaign manager Ken Mehlman delivered a backhanded compliment to Kerry. "One can argue," said Mehlman, "that debating skills are his greatest accomplishment." But by Thursday, the faux politesse will end as the candidates take off the gloves at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., for the first of three debates. (The second debate, a "town hall," is scheduled for Oct. 8 in St. Louis. The third debate will take place Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz. The vice presidential candidates will debate Tuesday in Cleveland.)

Their tasks in what might be considered the ultimate job interview are cut out for them. Bush must convince voters that he deserves four more years and that Kerry can't be trusted to lead the country. Kerry will have to convince them that Bush has bungled the economy and the war in Iraq and does not deserve a second term. Experts say voters are looking for reassurance, empathy and clues about how the candidates, especially the challenger, make decisions.

"They're looking for somebody they feel comfortable with, somebody who looks as though he can take command of things, make decisions when they have to be made," said Martin Plissner, the former political director of CBS and author of "Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections." "They want to see what Kerry says he will do if he's president."

Although many find the pre-debate dance inane, the conventional wisdom says it must go on. Most people don't actually watch the debates -- they hear about them or read about them afterward. Thus, "anything that can be done that can affect the spin becomes important," said James Fallows, who wrote about the debating styles of Bush and Kerry for the July-August issue of the Atlantic. "To the extent that you can low-ball the expectation, it's like beating the point spread."

Who ends up "winning" may depend less on who actually "won" than who was perceived as the winner based on expectations. If that makes no sense, welcome to the bizarre world of the presidential debate, where control-freak campaigns battle for weeks over a backdrop's exact shade of blue (Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter in 1976); where a shorter candidate might insist on a gently sloping ramp rather than a platform behind the podium so he will not be seen stepping up onto something (Michael S. Dukakis in 1988); and where you will hear a candidate being maligned by his own people. That trend nearly became parody when George H.W. Bush's campaign manager, James A. Baker III, told journalists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover in 1989 that Bush "basically let us go out and trash his debating ability, but it paid off."

The last time a candidate's representative showered unabashed praise on his own man was back in 1976, said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of "Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV." That was Patrick Caddell, who boasted to the New York Times that Carter "is very good with the camera .... He treats it like a person .... It's his strength." That, said Schroeder, was "a huge strategic error. And ever since then, you have seen these labored efforts to diminish one's own debating skill and play up the prowess of the competitor."

When then-Texas Gov. Bush first debated then-Vice President Gore in 2000, Bush benefited from near-universal low expectations. This time, though, with four years in the White House under his belt, observers say the bar is much higher. "It's hard for an incumbent to say he doesn't know the issues," said Fallows. "So many of Bush's unscripted comments have been poor that historically the debates have favored him." This is why, said Fallows, the Bush camp has been singing a familiar refrain: "He is the best leader, but you can't expect him to succeed against a fancy pants word guy."

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