WASHINGTON – Two undefeated champions of political debate are about to meet head-on for the first time in what one political analyst calls the heavyweight match of presidential debates.
James Fallows, author and former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, recently published a lengthy study in the Atlantic Monthly on the debating styles of both President Bush (search) and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search) that he based in part on his viewing all of their previous debates on video.
"I think the one thought that stuck me is that both these guys, in their own way in debates are very good. Neither has really lost," Fallows told FOXNews.com. "They are both undefeated champions. This is really a heavyweight match between two very different types of people."
After weeks of negotiation, the two campaigns announced on Monday that they had hammered out a deal to hold three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate before the Nov. 2 election. They also came up with the details on how the debates will be orchestrated.
The first debate on Sept. 30, held in Coral Gables, Fla., will focus on foreign policy and homeland security. The second debate, on Oct. 8 in St. Louis, will be a town hall-style forum open to any and all topics. The final debate, on Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz., will concentrate on the economy.
In the debates, the candidates will be allowed two-minute responses, 90-second rebuttals and 60-second surrebutters at the discretion of the moderator.
Debates Serve Up Form as Much as Function
Since 1960, when the first televised debates sunk a nervous-looking Richard Nixon and propelled a more self-possessed John F. Kennedy to victory, the modern presidential debates have been as much about appearance and personality as the ability to argue policy points.
This year will be no different, as the two men with different assets and vulnerabilities make their first and last appearances together before the nation decides their fate.
"This debate will give us the opportunity to see the two candidates in the same room, across from each other and that's important for people to see," said Alvin Williams (search), president of Black America's Political Action Committee. "With the debates you have much more important interaction between the two candidates and that's important for the viewing audience, especially for those who are unsure of who they are going to vote for."
Though the swing audience will no doubt be a target, the debates are also used as rallying calls for the partisan base, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"There are two groups these candidates want to reach. They want to excite their partisan base, throw them some red meat, and excite and win their fair share of undecided voters who are watching the debates," Sabato said, adding, "These two goals conflict."
Because of this conflict, the debates become an intense balancing act in which candidates want to underscore their strengths while not getting caught exposing their weaknesses, professional debate-watchers told FOXNews.com. At the same time, they want to throw their opponent off their game and appeal to undecided voters who want everyone to play nice.
Some Advice for the Performers
After watching the candidates' performances, Fallows offered the candidates some advice.
For Bush, Fallows warned: "Stay on message." In his Atlantic Monthly article, "When George Meets John," Fallows writes that the main feature that struck him after viewing the Bush debate tapes dating back to his 1994 victory against Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in Texas was Bush's unfailing ability to stay on message even when he demonstrated lesser oratory skills and a more cautious manner. Fallow added Bush never ceases to exceed expectations.
National Review contributor Kate O'Beirne said this year, Bush must make his message clear —that all his decisions in the Oval Office were the right ones.
"He has to make the case for his record, specifically the war in Iraq," O'Beirne said. "He has to appear utterly confident about the wisdom of his decisions and convincing about being on the right track in Iraq."
Of course, this strategy is different than the one in 2000, when everyone expected an "intellectually inferior" Bush to be trounced by Vice President Al Gore. As in past cases, appearances worked against Gore, whose audible sighs during Bush's responses and his nervous and sometimes aggressive mannerisms made Bush's affable answers shine. Bush, who came off more likable than Gore, beat expectations and won the debates.
Republicans are already lowering the expectations for Bush in the upcoming debates. Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (search) said in a television interview in August that Kerry and vice presidential candidate John Edwards were "two of the probably best debaters on one ticket, maybe in the history of the country."
But lowering the bar won't necessarily work this time, said Fallows. "He's the incumbent president, so it's harder to play the dumb guy." Bush's vulnerabilities lie with the risk he may be knocked off message or let Kerry get the better of him on the war issue, he said.
"They might hope to annoy the president and get under his skin," said O'Beirne. "Experience tells us that President Bush rises to the occasion when he does his homework and he'll be ready."
Fallows also has some advice for Kerry: Be likeable and don't lose your cool. Once senior class orator at Yale, Kerry has always enjoyed sparring over policy, turning a phrase and arguing a point.
According to Fallows, after watching myriad debates over Kerry's 18-year career, he never gets flustered, always has an answer even to an obscure policy question and knows how to undercut his opponent's position quickly.
"The real strength of Kerry is that he is unflappable," said Fallows.
Kerry's major problem, however, is his likeability, say the experts. Many unsuccessful candidates have been known to be smarter on policy than their rivals. But bloodless answers and lack of passion will fell a candidate every time.
"[Kerry] has to show a more humorous side," offered Rick Semiatin, professor of politics at American University.
Semiatin also noted that Kerry is often criticized for being too "nuanced" in his answers. "He needs to give more succinct, factual answers and he needs to attack Bush without coming across as overbearing," he said.
The Bush team calls Kerry's so-called nuances "flip-flops," especially on issues like Iraq. This is the tack that Bush will no doubt take to undercut Kerry. "It could well annoy Kerry," said O'Beirne.
No doubt viewers will tune in waiting for the gaffes, and these can never be predicted. But watching each man with his own trusted techniques and winning streaks put to the ultimate test could make for entertaining, if not informed, television, the experts said.
"Given that this election has been so close, [the debates] could certainly make a difference, especially if you have a lot of swing voters tuning in," Williams said.