Verbal Warfare: Prepping for the Debates

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," September 30, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Well, the stage is set and the countdown is on for Thursday night's vice presidential debate. An aide from the Palin campaign tells FOX News that the governor is being prepped outdoors on Senator McCain's ranch in Sedona in a relaxed environment. And meanwhile, Senator Biden is rehearsing for the big night in Wilmington, Delaware, although earlier today, the senator stopped by a local burger joint with his family.

So what are the candidates actually doing to prepare right now? Joining us live is President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Cheney. Well, not exactly. It's Bob Barnett, my good friend, who acted as a stand-in during mock practice debates against President Clinton and many others.

Bob, you've been a candidate, so to speak.

BOB BARNETT, PREPS PRES. CANDIDATES FOR DEBATES: Well, only so to speak. I don't have the abilities or the temerity to actually be a candidate, but I have enjoyed having the opportunity to play one in the movies, if you want to...

VAN SUSTEREN: So you actually -- you prepared yourself and you stood up next to them and basically let them have it, if necessary.

BARNETT: What I tried to do when I was acting as the surrogate was prepare myself as if I were preparing the Republican. I'd prepare a briefing book with everything they've passed, every vote they've cast, every position they've taken. And I'm not an imitator, I'm not Dana Carvey or Darrell Hammond, but I try to imitate, if you will, their words and their positions.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Now, this week's debate Thursday night with the vice president, it's going to be different from last Friday night?

Watch Greta's interview

BARNETT: Yes, it is. It's going to be both different from Friday night and different from years past in the following way. As you remember, Friday night, there were nine question pods. Started out with two two- minute answers and then a five-minute sort of free-form discussion and questioning period. That same model will be employed Thursday night, but it will be 90 seconds, 90 seconds, and a two-minute more free-for-all period.

This is unprecedented. As you know, in past years, all the way back to '60 -- and then there was a gap, '76, every four years -- it's been much more structured than this. This time, there's more opportunity for back and forth, moderator to candidate, candidate to moderator, follow-ups, questioning, et cetera.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is -- (INAUDIBLE) I guess some candidate might think he or she might have an advantage in a particular format? I mean, this really sort of -- they fight over these little details, don't they?

BARNETT: In the...

VAN SUSTEREN: Or argue. I shouldn't say "fight," but...

BARNETT: In the negotiations, there's a lot of back and forth. It's not so much, though, about this. It's often about sitting versus standing or length of answer, if you will, or whether there's a closing statement, whether there's an opening statement, those kind of things. This time, there's literally a 31-page memorandum of understanding between the campaigns that details everything, from tickets to camera positions, to answer length, et cetera.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about taking the shots? Because the pool camera takes the shot, but that can make a difference. I remember that George Bush, 41, looked at his watch, which I never thought was such a big deal. I would look at mine, so I guess I'm sympathetic at all times. But who -- is that negotiated in any way?

BARNETT: The placement of the camera is negotiated. And then the pool, as you say, feeds it to the networks and the cables. And then the networks and the cables decide -- their directors decide whether they're going to do split-screen or they're going to do straight on or they're going to look at the moderator or whatever. You'll notice there are no audience shots and there's no from the side shots, it's straight on. But the director at a particular network or cable can decide how to frame those shots.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. During the primary, or the Democratic primary in particular, there were an awful lot of debates. Do the candidates practice for each one, get a grilling on each one?

BARNETT: Well, I can only speak for the candidate I worked with, and that was Senator Clinton. And she practiced fully and completely for each debate. These are very serious, and particularly when you get in the general election, these can be crucial.

I think it's fair to say that in 1992 -- and I think I've heard President Clinton say this -- it was probably the three debates that swung the election to his favor because at that point, he was a little-known governor from Arkansas. Most people -- not junkies like us, but most people don't really focus until these debates. And once they focus at the time of these debates, how they judge the candidates, their demeanor, their answers, how they, if you will, respond can be dispositive and can swing votes.

VAN SUSTEREN: It must be sort of fun for you if you practice with the candidate and you hear the discussion about the team's work with the candidate to suddenly hear when the debate happens, you might hear something -- something -- some sort of tip or something that came out of your practice session actually appear in the debate.

BARNETT: One of the funniest experiences that I've had is -- I won't say the candidate for obvious reasons. We would practice not only the obvious, substantive questions, but also the off-the-wall questions. One of those is, Who are your heroes -- commonly practiced. And in the practice, we did that question and I answered with my Republican heroes and the candidate who shall remain nameless answered with his Democratic heroes. And when the actual debate came, that question was asked. The Democratic candidate drew a blank and used my heroes. And I sat there in a little bit of terror. Fortunately, I'd done Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, so it wasn't bad.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I understand that there aren't a whole lot of questions, really, that you can -- I mean, they're pretty -- a lot of them are pretty anticipated.

BARNETT: Well, it's not so much the wording of the question you can anticipate. But if you've done your homework, you can often anticipate the areas of question. For instance, it's obvious that you're going to get questions about the bail-out bill. It's obvious that you're going to get questions about the effects of the economic disaster that we're here in the United States in. So you can sort of anticipate many of the question areas, not the specific words.

And the interesting thing about these debates -- people can be very smart, and I've had the blessing of working with some very smart candidates. But this is a very peculiar and artificial format. Try sometime answering a complicated question on national health insurance in 30 seconds. It isn't easy.

VAN SUSTEREN: Indeed. Bob, thank you.

BARNETT: Thank you.

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