Debate time: when candidates must think on their feet

For long, anxious days now, the presidential candidates have been prepping for the critical debates that begin Thursday, with two more to follow.

Probably more anxious than the candidates themselves (because both candidates are veterans of debates and television performances before mass audiences) are the platoons of "handlers" and "trainers" and sound-bite polishers who have been nervously pirouetting around their candidates trying to anticipate every potential gaffe and misspoken phrase, prevent every unfortunate camera angle, and generally groom their man for a perfect public performance.

Each candidate has been rehearsed and rerehearsed in mock debate, with a tough stand-in for his opponent testing him with the most provocative taunts. They have been immersed in enormous briefing books covering everything from the throw-weight of North Korea's potential nuclear weapons to the caloric value of school lunches in Oklahoma.

These official briefing books are dizzying in their volume and content, and will have faded in memory and be of little use when the candidate gets out there by himself under the television lights with no props, no notes, no teleprompter, and has to think on his feet before millions of viewers.

I've never briefed a president of the United States, but I routinely used to brief a secretary of State - George Shultz - before he went out to field questions from the international press. Luckily, Mr. Shultz had a prodigious memory and unflappable demeanor, at which I used to marvel. But even he would occasionally be thrown by a preposterous question, as when a reporter of questionable mental balance asked him what he was going to do about his predecessor Henry Kissinger's "homosexual relationship with a Mexican bellboy whom he later murdered."

The debates between President Bush and Senator Kerry are being hyped as critical to the election's outcome, although they are probably more for Mr. Bush to lose than Mr. Kerry to win. We must hope that there is more substance than theater to them. Up until now in this campaign, substance has been overshadowed by an eruption of machismo over who did what in a war some 30 years ago.

Nonetheless, many voters will be influenced by how the candidates look and perform, rather than what they say.

Kerry has been a practiced debater since prep school, but comes across as wordy and pedantic. The London-based Economist magazine calls him "damnably boring." The Wall Street Journal says his "meandering verbosity" is an "unclear, indirect style that sometimes makes it hard for [him] to connect with audiences and leaves his words open to parsing and ridicule."

Bush has his own mangled confrontations with the English language. He cannot get his tongue properly around the word "nuclear." He's talked about "Grecians" instead of Greeks, and of "cocoa" production in Colombia instead of coca, and of "inebriating" when he meant exhilarating. But he pokes fun in an engaging way at his own "Bushisms," and he brought the house down at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington when, after joking about his stumbles, he thanked reporters for their "horspitality."

Bush is also no novice in debating, having out-pointed rivals when running for office in Texas, and having been rated by audiences as more likable than his previous presidential debate opponent - the sighing, eye-rolling Al Gore.

In "The Greatest Communicator," a new book he has written about Ronald Reagan, Richard Wirthlin - Mr. Reagan's pollster and chief strategist - says: "Ever since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first ever televised presidential debate in 1960, the verbal sparring sessions between presidential candidates have produced some of the most exciting communicative events of presidential elections.... No matter how hard candidates prepare, debates are inherently unpredictable. More than that, for the candidate leading in the polls, they can be risky. Like the time Gerald Ford seemed to forget that Poland was a part of Eastern Europe. Or the time Lloyd Bentsen turned to a young Dan Quayle and boomed, 'You're no Jack Kennedy.' Or when Al Gore sighed endlessly into his microphone."

When Reagan prepared for his presidential candidates' debate with Jimmy Carter, according to Mr. Wirthlin, he displayed the same kind of respect "a boxer shows another boxer. He recognized his opponent's talents and trained accordingly, all the while knowing that Carter the pugilist fully intended to knock him out." In the heat of debate, Reagan disarmed an attacking Jimmy Carter with a tilt of his head, a smile, and his famous "there you go again" line.

Unpredictable the Bush-Kerry debates may be, but let us hope they end in Reagan-like amity.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration.

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