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In one of the most closely watched races in the country, Republican incumbent Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren will meet in the first of four televised debates. In a tight race, the debate offers the possibility of a major turning point.
WBZ-TV will broadcast the debate live at 7 p.m.
Tad Devine, a political media consultant who has worked for Democratic and independent candidates, spoke to Radio Boston host Anthony Brooks about what the candidates need to do in order to pull off a successful debate.
Anthony Brooks: In a close race like the Brown/Warren race, how important is this first debate? What's at stake?
Tad Devine: I think a lot's at stake. [The voters] have seen a lot of TV ads for many months but these debates are live; they're real. And I think the voters place a high premium on them; they can take away a lot of information. It's occurring at a critical juncture when people are really starting to pay attention — particularly, the swing voters who decide these races. The debates can have a very big impact. They may, in fact, decide the outcome of the race.
Let's talk about the history of these debates. I'm struck by how often these debates are remembered for one particular line, which in some cases comes to define a candidate, in either positive or negative ways. For example, Scott Brown debating Martha Coakley, and the question came from moderator David Gergen:
David Gergen: I'm going to sit in Teddy Kennedy's seat, and I'm going to be the person who's going to block him for another 15 years?
Scott Brown: With all due respect, it's not the Kennedy's seat, and it's not the Democrat's seat. It's the people's seat.
How important is it for candidates to prepare for a zinger like that?
It's critically important. Debates typically are about big moments. And those moments are memorable. Many times they're prepared; sometimes they happen spontaneously.
In 1988, I was the campaign manager for Lloyd Benson in the vice presidential campaign. We had one of the greatest moments ever.
That was against the vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle. The famous line was...
You've got to be able to deliver those moments, those sound bites in a way that doesn't look scripted or prepared but looks spontaneous and real.
"You're no Jack Kennedy!" And I think when Senator Benson delivered that to Senator Quayle, it came at just the right moment in the debate. It was about an hour into the debate. That was the third time Quayle had been asked by the reporters a question about whether or not he'd be prepared to serve as president if called upon, and each of those times he really didn't answer the question. When Benson delivered that line to him, it just devastated him — and that moment lives on.
[These lines] tend to be sound bites, like what you just heard from Senator Brown. That's a a classic sound bite. I'm sure that was something they thought about and prepared for and delivered as part of their strategy. You've got to be able to deliver those moments, those sound bites in a way that doesn't look scripted or prepared but looks spontaneous and real.
On the flip side, debates can set a candidate back in unexpected ways. The first debate between vice president Al Gore --for whom you were working — and George W. Bush. A lot of us thought that Gore actually did better on the issues, but the story became how he famously sighed and came off like a know-it-all. So what's the lesson there as Brown and Warren head into tonight's debate?
I think there are a couple of lessons. One is to understand that in every moment of that debate, you're on camera and you're communicating. Your body language can be as important as what you say in the debate. The second lesson to be taken is it's not just what happens before and during the debate; it also is what happens in the immediate aftermath of the debate.
You better win the spin as well...you better define the debate in winning terms for your candidate or you're going to risk losing it.
When the [Gore/Bush] debate was over, we all went into the spin room, and our big spin that night was Gore won the debate and here's why. And the Republicans' spin — which I think turned out to be much better than ours, frankly — was he lied and he sighed. They had three instances when the vice president had made a factual misrepresentation and the whole sighing and the way he comported himself — that was really the thing that voters found offputting.
So after the debate's over, you better win the spin as well. And you better define the debate in winning terms for your candidate or you're going to risk losing it, even if voters who watched it thought that your candidate won.
You mentioned the expectations, and candidates play the expectations game going into these debates. Earlier this week, Scott Brown cast Elizabeth Warren as the smart Harvad professor with lots of debating experience. And Warren responded with:
So I'm just trying to understand — in sports, is this known as the expectations game? I watched Scott Brown in his debates against Martha Coakley, and Scott Brown is a very able and very effective debater.
So how important is this expectations game?
Be in the moment, be real, communicate simply in simple language with voters and stay on message.
It's very important because the voters go in there a set of expectations. And if you have a candidate who, for example, is calling for debates, calling for debates, calling for debates, and then they finally have a debate, usually the voters think that candidate's going to do better — that's why they want to debate all the time.
For Elizabeth Warren's campaign, she certainly has a lot of experience in a legal classroom. Having gone to law school many years myself, I can tell you that is absolutely the worst possible preparation for a televised political debate! The worst thing you can do is be argumentative. The worst thing you could do is cite precedent or move in that direction. And the best thing you can do is what Scott Brown did, frankly, when he debated a few years ago: Be in the moment, be real, communicate simply in simple language with voters and stay on message. He's done it before — and, frankly, she hasn't yet.
This segment aired on September 20, 2012.
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