McCain-Obama debate: a game-changing face-off?

Some presidential debates tip elections. This could be one of them.

By , Staff writer

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    In preparation for Friday's debate, University of Mississippi students stood in for presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain during rehearsals Thursday on campus in Oxford, Miss.
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The debate is on, despite the continuing negotiations on Capitol Hill over the nation’s financial crisis.

John McCain has finally agreed to join Barack Obama on stage here in Oxford, Miss. And the encounter has all of the earmarks of a major game-changer.

That’s not just because of the nation’s economic crisis and the drama of the last day and a half over whether McCain would attend. Tonight’s encounter has the potential to rival the televised contest of 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon that tipped the electorate in favor of the Democrat, debate experts say, or the 1980 face-off between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that helped shift the momentum in the GOP’s favor.

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The race between Barack Obama and John McCain remains tight. Some voters in both parties are still looking to be reassured about their own candidate’s leadership qualities and temperament. Alliances within each party’s base are also in flux: some rural voters, traditional Republicans, are leaning toward Obama. Some white women voters, traditionally more Democratic, are favoring McCain.

Add into the mix a column of “undecided voters” as large as 8 percent, and this series of debates kicking off with foreign policy here are expected to go down in the halls of debate fame.

"All of the factors are in play this year that would suggest that these truly are going to be significant debates,” says Mitchell McKinney, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri.Top on that list of factors is familiarity. Both Obama and McCain have work to do in shoring up support even within their own parties. As well known as McCain is, he’s never been the darling of the Republican base. While his choice of Sarah Palin has helped shore up much of that support, there are still Republicans who wonder if he has the temperament to lead. Obama, on the other hand, still has to convince some Hillary Clinton supporters that he can represent them as well. And he needs to address concerns about his experience.

“People will be looking at: ‘Is Obama experienced enough, can he really command?’ With McCain it’s: ‘Can he really relate to us on economic issues, is he more than just a one-hit- wonder on this country-first thing?’ ” says Professor McKinney. “Voters are looking to become more comfortable with the candidates and for a fleshing-out of their characters.”

Indeed, while issues and the candidate’s command of them matters, some debate experts argue that what’s just as important, if not more, is the way candidates handle themselves under pressure: what kind of a leader they’ll be when the heats on. The format of Friday’s foreign policy debate is designed, in part, to help people get a sense of that. It’s broken into 10-minute segments. At the end of each there will be a kind of free-for-all where the candidates can challenge each other in any way they want.

“That is not only going to make this history-making, but that’s the point where we’ll see the mettle of each person as a leader tested,” says Kathryn Olson, a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “McCain himself has said he has a temper that can make him impulsive, so I suspect Obama will try to exploit that. Obama has been seen as a little too button-down and aloof, and especially with what’s happening with the economy, Obama is going to have to show he can connect with real people’s woes.”

It’s not just what a candidate says that matters, as Vice President Al Gore discovered in his 2000 debate against George W. Bush. It’s their attitude. In the first debate with then Governor Bush in Boston, almost every debate expert gave the round to Mr. Gore for the quality of his rhetoric and his intellectual ability as a debater. But the media, and eventually the public, decided that Bush got the round – in part because of Gore’s exasperated sighs, his rolling of the eyes, and shaking of his head in dismay. It made him appear arrogant.

Add to that the importance of coping with the inevitable “Where’s the beef?” or “You’re no Jack Kennedy” one-liner that aides in both camps have probably already cooked up.

“Both candidates need to be wary of their nonverbal temperament and levels of discomfort,” says Timothy O’Donnell a professor at the University of Mary Washington and chairman of the collegiate National Debate Tournament. “It’s important the way they react to the one-liner: whether they can exhibit authenticity and wit and not appear stiff or knocked-back on their heels.”

That’s also part of the expectations game. Both parties have spent the last few months trying to weave a positive narrative about their candidate. Republicans paint McCain as the maverick whose strength is foreign policy. The Democrats tout Obama as a change agent, whose strength is problem-solving. Each side has also been busy creating negative narratives about their opponents. Democrats have painted McCain as out of touch and old. Republicans portray Obama as an arrogant elitist. The gaffes during debates that end up with real political significance are the ones that feed into those narratives – positive and negative.

“Obama can’t be disengaged, anything that shows even a hint of elitism; and it may sound too simple, but McCain can’t have a ‘senior moment,' ” says debate expert Allan Louden, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University.

McCain is also known as a better, more down-to-earth debater who’s capable of skewering an opponent with a smile. Obama is seen as more awkward behind the podium – too wordy and sometimes intellectual – but someone’s who’s improved throughout the primary season.

“Obama has to get through this debate coming off as just as qualified and just as able to handle foreign policy concerns as his opponent – since foreign policy is supposed to be McCain’s strength. Then we might be giving the debate round to Obama,” says McKinney. “McCain has been telling people he's going to wipe the floor with Obama – the expectations game is such that McCain cannot make a mistake."

A simple gaffe, even a misstatement, can cost someone a debate – if not an election – as Gerald Ford found out in 1976 in his debate with Jimmy Carter. At one point, he said that “Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination.” He meant the people of Eastern Europe were still independent, despite their governments. During the debate, most viewers seemed to understand that.
“Immediately after that debate polls showed that by a 44 to 35 percent margin more viewers thought Ford outperformed Carter. And by a 54 to 36 percent margin most viewers preferred Ford,” says Professor Olson.

But after the media hammered away at the mistake, which played into the narrative that Democrats had been weaving that Ford was out of touch, the polls shifted dramatically. “By a 61 percent to 19 percent margin, they believed Carter had won the debate and by a 54 to 37 they expressed a preference for him,” says Olson.

With the advent of the Internet and the ever growing blogosphere, the ability of the formal, mainstream media to influence perceptions may be dulled some, according to Olson. But other experts say the Internet also may increase the “perception factor” exponentially.

“There’s going to be hundreds of people out there trying to find the gaffe that will fly,” says Professor Louden. “There are multiple potential gaffes in any debate, it just depends on what story takes wing.”

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