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'Wing' gets point across to viewers

November 08, 2005|Frazier Moore | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Who won the debate? That was up to each viewer of "The West Wing" to decide. No pundits came on afterward to spin the results.

But this fictional faceoff Sunday night seemed like a winner for NBC. It had everything else, including a wishful vision of what a presidential debate might look like if its participants were willing to take off the gloves.

The ratings sweeps month stunt pulled in an estimated 9.6 million viewers, up from the 8.2 million "The West Wing" had been averaging this season, according to preliminary Nielsen Media Research figures. The NBC drama has lost about a third of its viewers this season with the move to Sunday nights.

In this live episode, make-believe Republican candidate Arnold Vinick startled his pretend Democratic rival, Matt Santos, by suggesting at the outset that their carefully negotiated rules of engagement be thrown out.

"When the greatest hero in the history of my party, Abraham Lincoln, debated, he didn't need any rules," declared Vinick (played by Alan Alda). "We could junk the rules."

"OK, let's have a real debate," said Santos (Jimmy Smits).

To add to the realistic feeling, real-life TV news veteran Forrest Sawyer was on hand to moderate. The give-and-take between Vinick and Santos fell into a pattern of lively exchange, even heated confrontation -- the sort of telling clash that actual presidential debates never permit. It was substantial, at times downright wonkish, and a remarkable contrast to the choreographed, antiseptic real thing.

The performance -- a blend of scripted dialogue and improvisation -- was repeated three hours later in another live airing for West Coast viewers.

This special episode was hyped as a signal event in the ongoing campaign to determine which candidate will inherit the White House from Democratic incumbent Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen).

The Vinick-Santos presidential debate supplied a lot to think about for would-be voters in the audience, who, among other things, might have been left wondering: Why won't real candidates debate this way?

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