Debates - once rare events in presidential races - are playing a central role in the Democratic campaign this year. The candidates all realize the political impact of these face-to-face meetings. They are giving top priority to debates like the one here in New York this week and Pittsburgh next week.
Debates are also elevating even more the importance of television in the American political process. Candidates are being forced to put greater emphasis on style, on slogans and catchy phrases, and on the ability to relate to a TV audience.
Each of the three remaining Democratic contenders has been at least partly successful in mastering this process. And each has been helped at crucial moments in this campaign by the televised debates. In fact, the debates are one reason that each man is still in this contest.
Gary Hart, virtually unknown to voters, came across quickly in the initial debates in Iowa and New Hampshire as forceful, well informed, and bright. Those appearances helped to establish him as the alternative to Walter Mondale. In New Hampshire, nearly three out of every four people who voted in the primary had watched Mr. Hart and the other candidates in at least one debate.
Mr. Mondale's performance in early debates was considered very weak. He assumed an above-the-battle stance, and seldom answered attacks on himself.
Mondale's strategy, he later explained, was intended to avoid antagonizing anyone. He fully expected to get the nomination and figured that he would later want the support of the other candidates. But the laid-back approach backfired.
By the time the candidates squared off in the Atlanta debate on March 11, Mondale was ready for battle. His barbs at Hart stung the senator. Mondale's strong performance probably helped him to carry Georgia and Alabama on Super Tuesday - and may have been crucial to keeping him in the running.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is the prime crowd-pleaser at debates. With pithy remarks, he cuts through a lot of the political rhetoric, and regularly gets the most applause from the audience.
Through the debates, Mr. Jackson's personality and his way with words have caught the fancy of a sizable segment of voters, and have helped him raise funds and win a small but respectable number of white votes.
Wednesday night's debate, sponsored by CBS News here in New York, produced no surprises. Each candidate, however, prepared for the debate as if the outcome of next week's crucial New York primary depended on it.
Mondale cleared his schedule, went to a private home that he uses here in Manhattan, and spent an entire afternoon getting ready for the broadcast. Hart plotted debate strategy for two hours with his senior aides, then tried to spend some quiet time to rest and reflect before facing the cameras. Jackson retired to a hotel in New York where he spent four hours getting prepared.
Hart advisers feel the debate in New York was pivotal to his chances here.
Currently Hart is about 12 points behind in New York State in his own private polls. His main problem lies in New York City, a Mondale stronghold. Tough-minded voters in the city are very skeptical about the young senator from Colorado, pollsters say. They know too little about him to trust him.
TV is Hart's only chance to overcome this ''knowledge gap,'' his advisers say. They add that Hart is just the right man for this TV strategy. His rugged good looks, his easily grasped slogan of ''new ideas,'' and his frequent references to John F. Kennedy all fit nicely into a television-based campaign.
Perhaps appropriately, one of the high points of the debate here Wednesday night was a clash over Hart's TV and newspaper ads. One of the most sensitive passages in a Hart ad running in New York goes like this:
''While Ronald Reagan shows an all-too-ready willingness to risk lives in pursuit of questionable goals, Walter Mondale shows a frequent unwillingness to challenge the inappropriate use of American force.''
The ad also calls Mondale ''mute'' on Lebanon, where Hart charges that Reagan ''sent more than 260 young men to their graves.''
Mondale, glaring at Hart during the CBS debate, said: ''Why do you run those ads that suggest that I'm out trying to kill kids, when you know better?''
Hart, refusing to retreat, shot back: ''Why have you questioned my commitment to arms control and civil rights when you know that I have just as much commitment to both of those as you do?''
Mondale has apparently decided that he does best when he keeps Hart from his ''new ideas'' themes.
Hart, meanwhile, has privately told his campaign staff that he wants to get away from ''negative'' ads and begin an ad campaign that concentrates on his ideas for the economy, civil rights, and arms control.