Debates that count

What to expect in the debates?

The favorite: Al Gore. He's looked good in past performances, particularly against Ross Perot and Jack Kemp. He's an especially effective counter-puncher.

The underdog: Gov. George W. Bush. He's never showed himself to be much above average as a debater. And journalists have painted a picture of him as not being as smart as Vice President Gore.

What the TV audience will be looking for: Over the years I've asked many viewers what they expected to get out of the debates, and their answers invariably run something like, "I'm sizing up the candidates."

That's what happens. People don't sit around their TV sets and score the contestants. The commentators do. But the public, for the most part, watches and "sizes up" the contestants. And what does that mean? It means, I think, that viewers have one overriding question on their minds as they draw up close to their televisions, and it is this: Which man is best fitted to run this country?

Sure, people want to know where the debaters stand on the issues. But most of their attention is on the personalities. Who is more knowledgeable? But, also, who shows more strength, more poise, more good humor? And, certainly, who is more likable?

But in this search for which of the two combatants possesses more of these and other admired traits, the viewers, again, are really seeking the answer to this big question: Who would make a better leader?

The polls, incidentally, have always shown Bush ahead of Gore on this question. Peter Hart, a highly regarded Democratic pollster, told us the other day at a Monitor breakfast that, in the tight race now emerging, the Texas governor still has a "few points" over Gore in the leadership category.

Still, I'll stay away from any predictions. Gore will be brilliant. But will he become overaggressive and appear arrogant and overbearing? Bush will be earnest and loose, maybe even funny. But will he fail the intelligence test, particularly as he tries to explain some of his complex plans?

This year the debates hold the potential for deciding the election. Often in the past, public opinion was running too strongly toward one or the other candidate to permit the debates to determine the election outcome.

One such decisive impact occurred in 1960, the year of the first presidential debates. That race was so close that the loser, Richard Nixon, almost called for a recount. Nixon was well ahead of John F. Kennedy before their debate, in large part because not too many people knew Kennedy outside of Massachusetts. When the public looked at Kennedy and liked what they saw, Kennedy took a slim lead over Nixon and held it to the end.

Another decisive impact occurred in the last Ford-Carter debate in 1976. Ford had just caught up to former President Carter and seemed to be forging ahead when he committed a major gaffe in a TV encounter, giving the impression that he believed the Soviet Union no longer had a dominant hold in East Europe. He immediately dipped in the polls and was never able to climb back, although the outcome was extremely close.

In my view, those have been the only presidential debates with "decisive impact." I know some observers contend that the Reagan quips amounted to knockdown blows in his debates, first with Carter and four years later with Mondale. But I never thought those debates changed anything decisively.

Carter had already lost because he hadn't persuaded the voters he was an effective president. Remember the American hostages in Iran? His vice president, Walter Mondale, as a presidential candidate, never got out from under Carter's shadow.

I never thought that the two times former President George Bush debated really changed anything.

But this time? Yes, this time the debates could make a difference.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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