The old idea that debates in presidential contests don't matter is one that needs to be rethought by the pundits. And the Bush campaign must now take note that a casual approach to the remaining debates could prove fatal to the president's re-election. Of course, I am somewhat biased about the importance of debate. My entry into politics came after I won the National Bicentennial Debate Championship as a high school debater (yes, I was a nerd). That led, years later, to my early opportunity to work with scores of congressional and U.S. senatorial candidates in their debate preparations. That work only increased during my years as a candidate and elected official.
So you can imagine that I viewed the first George W. Bush-John Kerry debate with a notational "flow chart" to monitor the ebb and flow of the arguments. The next morning, I wondered if my judging this debate in the classically taught manner was off course. Then, I heard syndicated radio talk-show host Neal Boortz -- for me, the best in the business and a Bush supporter in this race -- say that Kerry had won the debate, at least when gauged for style over substance. That settled if for me.
Then, there were the overnight polls; maybe they'd be a little less forgiving of Bush than the exacting and professional Boortz. On the other hand, would people's read on the debate itself change their minds on whom to vote for?
National polls released early this week suggest that the race has become a virtual dead heat. And what about the critically close and heavily populated battleground states? What did they make of the Bush-Kerry head to head? The most telling example may be Florida.
InsiderAdvantage asked 306 registered likely voters there (who watched the debate) who they thought was the winner. They answered:
John Kerry: 55 percent;
George Bush: 30 percent; and
Don't know/undecided: 15 percent.
The survey was conducted Oct. 1 and Oct. 2. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percent.
InsiderAdvantage polling of only registered Republican voters in Florida showed that the race had narrowed to the same statistical dead heat as it had across the entire nation. So Florida is now in play again. And that means it's time to lecture the Bush team a bit on debating.
I blame not the president and his positions, but poor preparation and strategy by his team of advisers and coaches. Media clippings showed the president trudging through hurricane-damaged orange groves the day of the debate. This came across as displaying a cavalier approach to the whole debate process. No candidate should spend his or her time in active campaigning on the same day as a debate.
At the podium that night, Bush looked as if he'd been laboring in hot groves all day -- hunched over the podium, seeming
tired and ticked off.
Rhetorically, his team obviously had given him a set of messages to which he was to return over and over -- standard practice in any debate. But they failed to have him assign outline numerals to each point. This is a simple rule that gives listeners a sense of concreteness and direction.
Moreover, the president's handlers provided him with no ready-made list of "go-to" words that he could use when questioned. These are essentially catch phrases that allow the candidate a delay time in which he can be thinking of what the meat of his response needs to be. That would have helped end the moments of "roaring silence" during which Bush appeared to be fumbling his way to an answer.
I could go on about style and presentation for political debates. But substance is more important than style, of course. And since Iraq and foreign policy are off the table for this next debate, here are some suggestions for a Bush comeback in the coming economic town-hall debate:
First, go on the attack! Bush should pin the economic collapse of the last few years squarely on the Democrats, pointing out that unemployment was high when Bill Clinton left office and that the recession already had begun before Bush became president.
Second, remind Americans that through Bush's leadership, America's economy came back even after the most vicious foreign attack on our soil in history.
Third, ask, "Where would our economy be today had we not passed a tax cut that stimulated the economy and gave an incentive to hang in there to those who provide jobs?"
Fourth, don't ignore the frustration that people feel over what have been tough economic times. Make it clear that he, the president, understands this frustration, and that's why he has a clear plan to put more people to work and more cash in all of our wallets.
This president has proven that he can meet a challenge square on. With a few basic debating techniques and a solid message, he can do it again -- with the whole world watching it on TV.
Matt Towery is chair of InsiderAdvantage, which works in conjunction with The Marketing Workshop to conduct polls for his syndicated column. He is based in Jacksonville, Fla.
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