'About Attributes and Character': Former Bush Adviser Karl Rove on Presidential Debates:

This is a rush transcript from "America's Election HQ," September 26, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BILL HEMMER, CO-HOST: For more on the high stakes tonight, then we are pleased to have someone who's been there before, at least behind the scenes, anyway. Former White House deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, our first guest tonight.

Karl, good evening to you.


Watch Bill Hemmer's interview

HEMMER: I want you to play the role — play the role of John McCain. What does he do tonight?

ROVE: Well, the most important thing for McCain to do tonight is project a sense of optimism, confidence, being in charge, and likeability. He can't come across as harsh and tired and cranky. Debates are about issues but even more than that, they are about attributes and character. And that's where McCain's got to shine tonight.

HEMMER: I'm looking at two New York Times pieces from earlier in the week. One examined John McCain's career as a debater and one examined Barack Obama's. For McCain, they call him a scrappy fighter. For Barack Obama, they say he carries an uneven record as a debater. Play the role now of Obama. What does he do?

ROVE: Well, he's got to be steady and got to be focused on something that is hard for him to do, and that is focused on explaining who he is and what it is that he would do. If Major Garrett is right, and I trust that he is, what the Obama campaign is telling him, that he's going to go on the attack right from the beginning, in a debate, the counterpunch is almost always more powerful than the punch and the guy who goes on the offense first generally loses.

HEMMER: Why do you say it's hard for him to do that?

ROVE: Because, you know, thus far in the campaign, particularly since June when he won the Democratic nomination, he has stayed on the offense against McCain; while at the same time we've seen these persistent doubts about whether or not he is qualified. ABC/Washington Post Poll in March, 45 percent said he was unqualified to be president. In June after he got the nomination: 47 percent. July: 47 percent. September: 48 percent.

He has been unable to work this down because he stayed on the attacks after McCain and hasn't paid enough attention to sharing who he is — at least that's my view. And I think if he adopts a strategy of coming straight out of the box at McCain tonight, to blaming everything on McCain, he's got all those votes. The votes that he hasn't got are the people who say — is this guy really up to it?

HEMMER: In 2004, you remember this debate all too well, Bush- Kerry, the first debate those men had, they had 66 million Americans watched. I think the easy money says 70 million at least watch tonight. I'm not quite sure how a Friday night football figures into that, maybe 80 million, you think?

ROVE: Yes. Look — this week has served to raise the stakes for the debate and probably raise the viewership. McCain coming off the campaign trail saying he was maybe going to miss the debate because of the rescue package work, and then now showing up flying in dramatically the afternoon of the debate and putting on a statement at noon saying he's going to be here — I suspect this presidential election, which has a great deal of interest, this has all served to hype that interest and we are likely to see even more viewers tonight.

HEMMER: Well, the point I was getting to is that you have said that the first debate is the most powerful, based on history. Why?

ROVE: Well, the first debate, if the perceived winner of the first debate, the candidate whom the American people thinks had a better performance that added to their attributes, generally gains about four points in the poll. In fact, in '00 and '04, the winner of the first debate gained nine points in the first poll following the first debate. — So, it sets an arc. You know, it sort of like sets things in motion. People's opinions get sort of locked in a trajectory and it remains unless they are shaken by other events or big mistakes in future debates.

HEMMER: Yes. It goes to the whole first impression argument, too, I imagine as well.

How does John McCain work into this rescue plan that he's been working on the last few days in Washington? How does he best finesse that, Karl?

ROVE: I think it is — look, Jim Lehrer is going to ask a question about it. I don't think anybody who would be moderating this debate would let the debate go or maybe even not let it start without asking a question about it.

HEMMER: Based on some of what Major's reporting, it might be the lead tonight for the first 15 minutes, even though the theme tonight is foreign policy.

ROVE: Right, you bet. Right, and so, you have to be, you know, you have to be pretty straightforward and be prepared to answer it. And, you know, I think the key for both tonight is to, in McCain's place, in McCain's instance, is to be what he was in Saddleback, in the Saddleback conversation — straightforward, simple declarative sentences, answer the questions directly.

Senator Obama needs to avoid what he did in the Saddleback performance which was — he was too nuanced and professorial, and sort of went elliptically around the question and finally gave something of an answer which may or may not have been understandable by the audience. He needs to be simple, and direct, and straightforward and answer the questions.

HEMMER: Thank you, Karl. We'll see throughout the night tonight, OK?

ROVE: Thank you, Bill.

HEMMER: Karl Rove, good to have your analysis.

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