How US Voters Can Glean The Most From the Debates

Right after President Clinton and Bob Dole face off in the first round of campaign debates in Hartford, Conn., Sunday night, political handicappers will assess the candidates' strategies, how they measured up against expectations, and who spoke the memorable line.

In short, they will be asking two questions: Who won, and how did the event reconfigure the horse race?

While the candidates are still on stage, however, it might be worth asking yourself a different set of questions: Are Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole explaining clearly why they want to be president? How do these men and their ideas differ? What do they agree on? And are they effective communicators?

For both voters and the candidates, the fall debates offer the last, and arguably the most important, opportunity for dialogue in a presidential campaign. The three events - two between Clinton and Dole, one between vice-presidential contenders Al Gore and Jack Kemp - are a crucial part of each campaign's effort to spread its message. As many as 100 million viewers nationwide will tune in, many of whom live off the campaign trail or outside the media markets where the candidates run their advertisements. A large portion of the electorate may just now be weighing the choice seriously. In play is a sizable bloc of undecided or independent voters.

"Asking who won or lost is silly," argues Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Debates offer a higher level of engagement and a lower level of attack. When you strip away all the talk about strategy, voters go back to the core issues - what matters to them and what's important nationally. The debates serve an informing function."

Not that strategy is irrelevant. In the runup to Sunday's event, both sides are actively trying to influence expectations and develop punch lines.

History provides little evidence that elections turn on the outcome of debates alone. It's argued that Sen. John Kennedy's debate performance against Richard Nixon may have won him the 1960 election. But more often the debates are when lasting impressions are created and campaign momentum is sparked. As President Ford's running mate in 1976, Dole earned a national reputation as a "hatchet man" by carping about "Democrat wars." Ronald Reagan, for example, bolstered his successful challenge against President Carter in the 1980 debates.

THIS year, both Dole and Clinton view the debates as pivotal, albeit for different reasons. For Dole, the events mark his last opportunity to tip the balance in his favor. If he is to win the undecided bloc, his performance in the debates will be critical. He also needs to present himself as a kinder man than the image he built in previous campaigns. His goal will be to make the voters take a second look.

"It is critical that voters gain a better understanding of Bob Dole and the values that undergird him as he readies to be president," says Dole communication director John Buckley. "We have to make voters understand that there are stakes in this election."

For Clinton, meanwhile, the debates mark an opportunity to seal his reelection bid. He doesn't necessarily need to sway undecided voters. At a minimum, he simply needs to prevent the polls from shifting. "Bob Dole has to force Bill Clinton to stumble," says political analyst Kevin Phillips. "Dole has to do the heavy lifting."

Don't expect mean-spirited confrontation. Dole will stress character issues and paint Clinton as a politician who speaks like a conservative but taxes and spends like a liberal, according to aides. Clinton, meanwhile, may play off the unpopularity of Congress and its Republican leaders. But unlike most presidential debates, these feature two candidates who know each other well and, for the most part, share a healthy respect.

Nor are there likely to be many policy surprises. There is normally a high level of redundancy between what candidates say in the debates and elsewhere during the campaign. That's partly because debates fill in the gaps where the candidates don't advertise or campaign in person.

The Clinton campaign, for example, has bought substantial airtime in 20 states; Dole in 17. Since Sept. 1, in a total of 17 states, including Dole's home state of Kansas and the first primary state of New Hampshire, neither candidate has given a stump speech or aired a significant number of ads, according to a tracking survey by the Annenberg school.

The debates are likely, however, to reveal substantive differences between the candidates on finer points of policy and ideology. Take education, for example. Dole supports vouchers for public schools while Clinton backs charter schools. Stump speeches provide clues to other specific points the candidates may stress in the debates. The president may cloak environmental issues in the rhetoric of values. His challenger will certainly exploit the rise in teenage drug use.

Still, pundits say building image may be as crucial as conveying vision. "If Bill Clinton has a vulnerability, it lies somewhere on the spectrum of personal morality," Mr. Phillips says. And Dole's soft spot is the risk that he'll utter one of his famous snarls.

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