The debates: high stakes, sound bites and zingers

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Some might say the selection of Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket didn't make any sense. Kind of like the lyrics to "Come Sail Away" by Styx.

It starts off you're on a boat, everything's OK. You ask your girlfriend to join you. You're searching for tomorrow "on every shore." Next thing you know, you're getting abducted by space aliens.

But it was a huge hit for the band. Palin's been a huge hit for the McCain ticket. She's brought in a lot of money. The base is energized. The polls shot up - although nationally they've stabilized. But in state-to-state contests, it's all pretty even.

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It's too close to call

That's what makes the upcoming vice presidential debate, not to mention the three presidential debates, so interesting. We need Tim Russert back -- for a number of reasons. But there was no one who had more enjoyment in announcing, "It's too close to call."

The debates have the potential of tipping the race in one direction. As David Broder writes this morning, the debates can present another turning point.

"Now, they meet with terribly high expectations on both of them and little room for error," Broder writes. "McCain, after enjoying a brief boost from the Republican convention and the unveiling of Sarah Palin, has fallen back into his pre-convention position, lagging slightly behind. Obama still is unable to lock down 270 electoral votes because he is falling well short of the lead that Democrats enjoy generically over the Republican opposition this year."

Biden-Palin

We do know this. A lot of people will be watching the debates. And it all starts this Friday in Oxford, Mississippi. Perhaps the more interesting debate will be on Oct. 2 when Joe Biden and Sarah Palin go head to head.

This contest stands to be the most watched in the history of vice-presidential debates. With all of the Palin-omania, it seems certain the record, currently held by the Ferraro-Bush contest back in 1984 with 56.7 million viewers, will be broken.

The two campaigns yesterday reached an agreement on the format for this debate. There are no restrictions on the content of the questions, but it is more structured than the presidential debates in terms of time spent answering questions and commenting on each other's answers.

Palin and Biden will each have 90 seconds to answer a question. Then the two veep wannabes can mix it up for two minutes between the moderator's questions.

Enough already

While we await the upcoming contests, one thing is a certainty: The shrieks of "the stakes have never been higher" from political analysts will become a roar before the week is over.

Every four years, people buy in to it -- as they do with the "this year is the dirtiest campaign ever" charge and the "sound bites aren't going to work this year" line.

This morning, for example, in a Cox news service story, communications professor Allen Louden is quoted as saying, "Talking points and glib one-liners just won't do" this time when discussing the upcoming debates.

If either campaign is taking advice from Louden, the candidates might as well not show up. A well-said zinger or an unfortunate gaffe has the potential to last until the end of the campaign. Not only would such a comment be used in paid advertising, but campaigns would constantly refer to it, it would come up in future debates, and the YouTube exposure would be staggering.

Lipstick and fundamentals

Think about the contest in just the last two weeks.

The McCain campaign was able to take Barack Obama's "lipstick on a pig" line and roll into almost a week of controversy for the Obama camp.

McCain's "The fundamentals of the economy are strong" sound bite could be the one-liner responsible for Obama's camp turning the polls upside down in the past week.

Sound bites are terrifically important. They are why people remember the 1984 Reagan-Mondale debate or the 1988 vice presidential debate.

Taking a step back and looking at why sound bites are important, put yourself in the media's shoes. How do reporters construct an article? How do TV news producers put together a video package? Or even in simpler terms, how do you tell a story to your office mate or your child? You pull out the highlights.

HuffPost

Look at the Huffington Post this morning. It screams sound-bite.

A headline reads: "McCain: I'm not for privatization of Social Security." That is contrasted with a 2004 sound-bite from the Republican candidate: "Without privatization, I don't see how you can possibly over time make sure young Americans are able to receive Social Security benefits."

Voila! An instant flip-flop story.

Substance

That's not to say that substance isn't important. Obviously, it is. Substance is the foundation. If both candidates present themselves well, the best sound bite can be a momentum changer. And a serious flub during a debate or while speaking off the cuff has the potential to sink a candidate. What both campaigns want to do is get through these unscripted events unscathed.

As Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger recounted, "You know, all you have to do is hold your own in these things, because nobody wins or loses these debates on points. They do it on perception."

Zinger-land

So as you prepare for today's NFL action or tomorrow's work day, the two campaign's very effective communications teams are in zinger-land. Writing, rewriting, editing, stealing, borrowing, studying, and presenting zingers to be displayed this Friday. Most of them will not make the final cut, but we're sure to see some of their handiwork.

Hey, I got a life!

But then again, maybe no one will watch these things at all.

Our friend Andrew Malcolm over at the LA Times perhaps has a more realistic look at Friday's debate

"As seemingly designed, millions of Americans are expected to not watch it, Friday nights in autumn often being set aside for things like high school football instead of watching Washington guys in suits arguing on TV."

Back to the battlegrounds

And after the debates? Well, assuming both campaigns minimize the gaffes, the election will be decied where it is always decided: on the ground in a handful of swing states. So keep your eye on the polls in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, and a few others. And be ready for another close one.

As Thomas Burr writes in the Salt Lake City Tribune the spectre of a tie is out there.

"Under four distinct scenarios, each of them possible given recent polls, the United States may again hold an election for president and end up without one," Burr writes. "The possibility of a tie vote in the Electoral College - leaving McCain and Obama each with 269 votes - may toss the decision of who is the next leader of the free world to the House of Representatives."

If that happens, the presidential debates will just be a footnote in this wild election year.

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