Debate Dos and Don'ts

For Both Men:

• Do show a sense of humor. Laugh at an appropriate moment at least once.
• Don’t laugh mirthlessly. You will look like an insane, nervous person who never should have responsibility for guiding the nation in a perilous time.
• Do keep your cool. Remember: People will take their cues less from what you say than how you behave.
• Don’t be snarky. Save that for the hustings.
• Do act like a president. In one case, you are president; in the other, you want to be. Show that you’re up to the task.

For George W. Bush:

• Don’t mess up the facts, say, by declaring that Iran is a free democracy.
• Don’t try to spout facts as if your body had been invaded by the Encyclopedia Britannica. Your father tried that and acted as if his hard drive had locked up, stammering and reaching for elusive factoids. Nobody expects you to blind them with statistics. They expect you to be nice. They expect you to show command. They expect you to react with composure. They expect you to stick to your convictions.
• Don’t smirk – well, don’t smirk too much.
• Don’t get sucked into a Vietnam debate. Just praise Kerry’s service and move on. The issue is his quagmire. Don’t make it yours.
• Do talk realistically about what you think it will take to win the war.
• Do explain why we shouldn’t send troops to Iran, North Korea or other trouble spots.
• Do describe your shining city on the hill, and how war plays into making that city (a) possible to build and (b) a happy and secure place.

For John F. Kerry

• Don’t listen to your handlers. The Shrum strategy of attacking and prodding may sell with the Angry White Plutocrats who now finance the Democratic Party, but it won’t persuade any undecided voter to join your camp. Your problem is that people think of you as an unlovable stiff. It won’t help matters if you show animation without a shred of human warmth.
• Don’t get caught in the Vietnam trap. Say you were proud to serve and move on.
• Do have an answer to the question: Why did you describe your band of brothers in such unflattering terms in your testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971?
• Don’t try to sell the “smarter war on terror” line. Everybody has figured out that the line is a dodge. It’s time to take an identifiable stand and stick with it. You’re either for the war or against it. Make that part clear. You’re either for fighting it out alone or against it, because our allies aren’t going to pony up troops. You’re either for staying indefinitely or pulling out on a timeline. Tell us where you stand. Don’t be afraid to make enemies, because a firm position is also the only way you’ll make friends and win converts.
• Don’t continue to retail dubious claims about the president’s behavior toward Pentagon Generals, especially Army Gen. Eric Shinseki.  Don’t get hung up on allegations the president intends to restore the draft. It’s bogus, and you know it. Ditto for other questionable claims, such as your oft-repeated allegation that the war in Iraq has cost $200 billion. Remember: Your guys expect you to be the smarty-pants. If you start reciting urban legends, bloggers will tear you apart – and the mainstream press will catch on a couple of weeks later – which means that you’ll spend the final days of the campaign trying to explain what you said on Sept. 30.
• Do find a new answer to the question of why you said you voted for the $87 billion before you voted against it. You dug yourself into a hole with yesterday’s attempt to explain the gaffe to Diane Sawyer.  Don’t blame others for your miscues. It’s a bad habit, and doesn’t wear well.  Do have fun. Think of this not as the do-or-die debate, but as the beginning of the real campaign.

Best Case/Worst Case Scenarios

George W. Bush

• Best case: Words flow like honey, you charm Jim Lehrer, and the sages declare you the hands-down winner.
• Worst case: You lose your composure, get defensive about bin Laden and challenge Senator Kerry to a duel.

John F. Kerry

• Best case: You solve the riddle of your position on Iraq, and impress everyone as a competent, cool and likeable leader of a nation facing a hostile and perilous world.
• Worst case: The heat gets to you. Your makeup melts, revealing a bright orange visage. Children have nightmares about the Man of Two Faces.

Most Likely Outcome:

The debate will produce a few pre-fab one-liners; the press will declare Kerry the winner and produce a rash of “John, the fast and furious closer” stories about his penchant for come-from-behind victories. Then the polls will indicate a persistent voter preference for the president, occasioning a rash of “dirty tricks” stories. The second debate will attract only two-thirds as many viewers as the first.

What Matters:

• Appearance: Who looks more like a president?
• Demeanor: Who acts more like a president?
• Facts: Who’s being straight with the public; who’s shading the facts?
• Policies: Who will make us stronger and safer?
• Trust: Which person do you trust more?

Good News/Bad News:

Good news for Democrats: Bill Clinton plans to return to the stump soon. Bad news for John Kerry: The return date is November 9 – a full week after the election.

Tomorrow: A scorecard!

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