Debates: a formal setting might aid Reagan; informal could help Carter

If the presidential debates are held this fall, who is likely to emerge as "the winner"? If it is a one-on-one between President Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan -- patterned after the fast-paced 1976 format of questions from reporters -- Mr. Carter would fare better, according to Lloyd Bitzer, University of Wisconsin professor of communication arts, who has been carefully studying the speaking styles of the three major candidates.

"That format gives a distinct advantage to the candidate with the quicker wit ," explains Professor Bitzer, co-author of "Carter vs. Ford: The Counterfeit Debate of 1976." "Carter is nimble and clever -- very, very able in that kind of face-to-face, spontaneous, unrehearsed give and take."

Governor Reagan would fare better if the format, still to be decided by the League of Women Voters, were somewhat more formal, allowing careful preparation of remarks and avoiding a face-to-face encounter. Unlike Carter, says Professor Bitzer, the GOP nominee is at his most attractive and articulate when delivering a prepared speech.

"Reagan did well in the Republican debates [last winter] by just stepping back," recalls Professor Bitzer, "and I think if the format stayed the same as for those debates, Reagan would stand to win."

Under the 1976 Carter-Ford format, Candidate Reagan could easily stumble by pulling up what Professor Bitzer calls "commonplaces" -- concise, honed policy statements voiced during the campaign.

"A lot of Reagan's commonplaces are just on the edge of a little bit of error or overstatement -- such as his insistence that Americans do not need to conserve energy because there is still so much oil underground. That says that there isn't any energy problem. If he fetches up that kind of thing, he could get into a lot of trouble. During the primaries . . . most voters are willing to allow candidates considerable political license."

Professor Bitzer suggests that Reagan knows his strengths and that knowing he would fare better in a slightly more formal, three-way discussion is one of the reasons he is demanding John Anderson's inclusion in the debates.

If Congressman Anderson nets the necessary 15 percent popularity rating in the polls to qualify for the debates, the result is more likely to be a "forum" than a debate.

"They could all end up giving position statements that float lazily side by side," notes the Wisconsin professor.

While Anderson would probably do well in any kind of format because of his ability to keep tight control over what he says, and would make points with voters just by being included, his presence would also "take a little of the heat off" Governor Reagan from direct attacks by President Carter.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.