Election debates: issue forums or image makers? Candidates try to embarrass rivals in 30 seconds

Lincoln and Douglas -- those paragons of American political debate -- wouldn't stand a chance in today's election process. ``Not with our short attention span,'' says Steve Schier, a political science professor at Carlton College in Minnesota who keeps an eye on campaign debates throughout the country. The point of debates today, he says, seems to be ``to manufacture an image and embarrass the opponent -- in 30-second sound bites.''

Indeed, this year's political debates often hinge less on a discussion of the issues than on which candidate can come up with the best one-liner. In upstate New York, James P. Keane (D), who wants to paint opponent Rep. Jack Kemp (R) as not caring about his community, was rated as winning in a debate with Mr. Kemp using such lines as ``You won't see him raking leaves in Hamburg [the congressman's legal residence].''

In the case of incumbents, such as Govs. Mario M. Cuomo in New York and George Deukmajian in California, the point seems to be to avoid debate altogether, thus giving their opponents less of a chance for media exposure.

``I would say debates are better than nothing, but they are almost nothing,'' says Professor Schier.

Most purists agree with Schier, and many refuse to call today's forums debates. But others defend the debates as the only way many voters will be able to hear the candidates together.

``The debates are really important when so much campaign money is going into advertising, and negative advertising doesn't deal with issues,'' says Janice Kaplan of the national League of Women Voters, a sponsor of many debates.

In Georgia, the league recently sponsored the only debate between Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr. (D) who is challenging Sen. Mack Mattingly (R). It received the biggest television audience share that night in metropolitan Atlanta, says Rosalie FitzPatrick, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia.

``There had been charges and countercharges, but [voters] couldn't tell what was true,'' says Ms. FitzPatrick. ``Our debate doesn't clarify all the issues, but it gives voters the opportunity to compare the candidates. . . .''

Polls taken after the debate show that Mr. Fowler gained support after the debate. But many political observers say that debates tend to reinforce the views of those who already have opinions, and only a small percentage are actually swayed. Politicians know that the most savvy voters already have their minds made up, so they appeal to transient voters who may or may not go to the poll.

``These people don't look at issues, but they respond if the candidate is confident, if he or she reassures the voters,'' says Kent Tedin, chairman of the political science department at the University of Houston. He says the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 set the tone. Many debate coaches would have called Mr. Nixon the winner in terms of an actual debate, but Mr. Kennedy clearly won with his image.

Ms. Kaplan says the league has sponsored more congressional debates than ever before, including over 20 senatorial debates -- many focused on national-security issues -- and over 30 House debates. In many cases the forums were broadcast statewide. And in those states where a debate could not be negotiated, it has often become a campaign issue.

Sometimes the challengers almost like the issue of no debate more than the chance for an actual debate.

In New York State, Governor Cuomo held out from debating Republican challenger Andrew O'Rourke because the Westchester County executive would not release all the financial disclosure forms that Cuomo requested. Mr. O'Rourke held a mock debate where he brought a cardboard cutout of the governor.

When Cuomo dropped his demand, two debates were finally scheduled, with one to run live statewide on public television. That one was canceled after O'Rourke withdrew because of the inclusion of a candidate he calls anti-Semitic. A debate sponsored by the New York Times took place yesterday.

Schier says part of the problem with today's debates is that the public is not seriously engaged with issues, like the federal deficit, because they do not adversely affect life on a day-to-day basis.

But not all voters agree.

``I want to know what Cuomo has to say about how he runs this state,'' says a Manhattan cab driver. ``How can I support him for president if I can't hear him down here?''

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