Audience will be watching debates carefully, pros say

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The modern-day Lord of the Debate, Jim Lehrer, figures that most voters won't need any outside parties to tell them who "won" Tuesday night's first big showdown.

"If someone watching at home says, 'Hey, I didn't like that answer from Sammy Sue,' then all the spin doctors and pundits can't change that impression," he said. "The larger the audience, the less power those people have. And these things have had huge audiences."

In this case, the Sammy Sues – Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush – could be performing before record audiences when they square off in Boston during the homestretch of their neck-and-neck race for the presidency.

Will a gaffe alter the dynamics of the election? Can Mr. Bush look "presidential" enough to shed the "empty suit" his detractors have put him in? Should Mr. Gore be wary of coming off as a smug know-it-all "wonk?" And will Mr. Lehrer, who is moderating all three of this month's presidential debates, know just when to bore in or back off?

"Think of the pressure these guys are under," said Fox News Channel anchor Brit Hume. "It isn't an easy task to strike the right balance. You can get spooked off your game plan sometimes."

One thing is certain. Far more viewers will see the candidates debate than watched either of their acceptance speeches at the national party conventions. Mr. Gore's drew 25 million viewers and Mr. Bush's 24 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The least-watched presidential debate ever – round two in the lackluster 1996 campaign between President Clinton and Bob Dole – had 36.3 million viewers. But in 1992, when the presidential contest was seen as much closer, the three debates averaged 90 million viewers, including an all-time high 97 million for the final bout among President George Bush, Mr. Clinton and Ross Perot.

'Pivotal event'

In that sense, the expensive, carefully stage-managed conventions amounted to little more than dinner theaters. Now it's on to Broadway, where the lights are brighter, the stakes are higher and the attendant media throng at last has some real news to chew on.

"This is going to be a pivotal event in the election. I just feel that very strongly right now," said veteran CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer. "I think debates could be the whole ballgame this time around."

Boston College political science professor Marc Landy, author of Presidential Greatness, said debates have "become absolutely crucial in keeping these campaigns above the Oprah-MTV level and the total garbage in campaign commercials. Compared to that, the debates really shine. They've become a beacon of sanity in the electoral process. George W. Bush's worst moment in this campaign so far was when he gave the impression he was trying to dodge them."

The history of nationally televised presidential debates dates to Sept. 26, 1960, when a tanned John F. Kennedy rose to the occasion against a flu-ridden Richard Nixon, who looked pale and sweated profusely. Mr. Kennedy eventually won the presidency by an eyelash. Many observers since have said he actually won it that night.

Playing to viewers

"A relatively unknown Kennedy did much more than anyone expected of him," said Dr. Elihu Katz, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think the makeup and Kennedy's relatively relaxed television style were much more important than anything the two of them said."

Ronald Reagan faced a similar task in his lone 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Reagan's famed "There you go again" line, coupled with an imposing television presence, convinced many voters that he had the mettle to be president, said Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy, author of The Manipulated Path to the White House 1996. "Certainly the national perception of Reagan was changed by his performance in that debate."

Another 20 years later, Mr. Bush appears to be facing much the same challenge Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Reagan met. University of Missouri-Columbia professor Mitchell McKinney, who has been a consultant for the National Commission on Presidential Debates, said the Texas governor is in a good position to score.

"If [Mr. Bush] can just stand there for 90 minutes and seem halfway intelligent and be able to form complete sentences, then he's going to come out all right," Mr. McKinney said.

Avoiding gaffes

Mr. Gore, on the other hand, has a reputation as a "killer debater," but can't look as though he's piling on, said ABC's Mr. Hume. "You've got to deflate your opponent, but without seeming like a monster in the process. And Gore has a tendency to come off as kind of a mean, do-anything-to-get-elected guy."

Both candidates also must be careful to avoid slips of the tongue or any other untoward lapses that might forever define their performances.

President Gerald Ford's entire debate history is colored by a misstatement – "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" – in his second 1976 encounter with Mr. Carter. Vice President Dan Quayle forever is "no Jack Kennedy." Michael Dukakis constantly is reminded of the passionless answer he gave in 1988 when asked whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. And President Bush has never lived down looking at his watch during the 1992 "town hall meeting" debate with Mr. Clinton and Mr. Perot.

"There's a lot of showmanship and there's always a great risk that a gaffe will occur," said Southern Methodist University communications professor Rita Whillock, author of Soundbite Culture: The Death of Discourse in a Wired World . "But I think people need to see them side by side and compare them as they talk about common issues."

'Show business'

The senior George Bush recently told Mr. Lehrer on a PBS program that debates are mostly "show business" and shouldn't be considered a "required part of the process" in presidential campaigns.

"I understand his point," said CBS' Mr. Schieffer. "I just think he's totally wrong and completely out of touch. Debates are terrific, especially when neither of these guys [Mr. Gore or George W. Bush] has exactly lit up the night sky and captured the imagination of the American people. This is where we'll get the best chance to look at them."

The University of Missouri-Columbia's Mr. McKinney said voters and the media "quite often do fixate on particular moments or blunders in debates. But oftentimes they're subtexts that illustrate a larger issue. They fill out a larger script of what we believe to be true about a candidate."

On the other hand, Americans crave a "kayo," said CNN's Bernard Kalb, who analyzes media performance on the network's weekly Reliable Sources program. "Television has conditioned us to expect a clear winner, not just a split decision. If you look at these debates subliminally, they're just plain old-fashioned prizefights. Viewers, all of who have been given ringside seats, are looking for a knockout. It makes it simple, clean and easy."

'Anxiety and tension'

Perhaps so, said Mr. Lehrer. "But I believe that any time you get the candidates on the same stage talking about issues, it's good for the democratic process. Yes, there are show business aspects. But there's also going to be plenty of opportunity to get at what really matters."

Mr. Hume said he doesn't know how the candidates do it, though.

"I could never face up to the anxiety and tension," he said. "These guys have to say they're looking forward to debating. It's sort of politically incorrect to say otherwise. But how could you possibly enjoy it, with all that's at stake.

"Man, I don't envy either one of these guys."