Can new format end the debate doldrums?

Tomorrow night offers best hope for 'real' conversation, with Bush and Gore sitting together at a table to talk.

In the realm of presidential debating, there's nothing like a brand new TV format to add some spice to what can be a "Big Brother" experience for viewers.

And if a conversational new format for tomorrow's presidential debate - in which Al Gore and George W. Bush will gather round the table just an arm's length apart - doesn't raise your hopes for a "real" interchange of ideas, don't flick to another channel just yet. There's always the possibility that something telling or important or even (gasp!) candid could happen at the 60-minute mark of the 1-1/2-hour debate - a turning point in several previous TV encounters between would-be presidents.

To Alan Schroeder, a well-known student of presidential debates, a first-of-its-kind format can be a kind of high-wire act for the candidates. It has the potential to be must-see TV, he says, because candidates haven't had an opportunity to develop a strategy for it yet.

Sitting with a Monitor reporter during the first debate last week, the university professor and author opined, "Like Super Bowls and Academy Awards [shows], sometimes you sit there and nothing happens." But if last week's Bush-Gore debate didn't leave many viewers eager to tune in to Round 2, Mr. Schroeder, for one, has hope. "What you come back for is different formats that may allow for a better exchange of ideas."

Tomorrow's meeting in Winston-Salem, N.C., when the two candidates meet up again with moderator Jim Lehrer, is closer to the kind of format Mr. Bush wanted.

"It's much more of a conversation, and that is going to be more interesting," says Schroeder, who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston. "We're in this kind of talk-show culture, and people are used to that."

Bush's advisers believe their candidate's congeniality and personableness are more likely to come across in a less formal setting. But the fact that only one of the three debates will be in their preferred format may prove to be more important than first appears: Schroeder's research has found that whoever wins the predebate wrangling usually prevails in November.

"In every instance, the successful side in predebate negotiations has gone on to carry the vote," he writes in the recently published book "Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High Risk TV."

While the Bush camp gets one "Larry-King-Live"-style debate, it ended up making a major concession on the current roster of 90-minute, multiple-network meetings.

"It's this constant battle between control and spontaneity," says Schroeder, who is also an Emmy-winning former reporter and documentary filmmaker.

The town-hall style

The last time a new format was introduced was 1992, when Bill Clinton argued for and got a town-hall-meeting style. Mr. Clinton handled the format smoothly, while President George Bush was remembered for checking his watch on camera and fumbling a question about how the national debt was affecting him personally. One audience member even asked the candidates to stop squabbling and deal with the issues.

Schroeder notes that the town-hall format is already losing its uniqueness. This year, when it is used in the third debate on Oct. 17, Mr. Lehrer will pre-screen the questions before they are asked.

"Each time it gets a little more controlled," he says. "The very first time ... nobody knew what was going to happen, and it was a really interesting debate."

Candidate control has snowballed since Richard Nixon and John Kennedy first met on TV in 1960 - when Kennedy's people were more attentive to detail and it showed. Today everything from the temperature of the hall to the length of rebuttals is settled ahead of time. It's a process that, Schroeder writes, is akin to "haggling in a Middle Eastern carpet bazaar."

Requests can become fairly elaborate, he says. In 1996, Bob Dole's team mandated that a special platform be built for Elizabeth Dole, so that she was separate from the town-hall audience but could still see her husband and remind him to smile.

To Schroeder, Mr. Clinton sets the gold standard for presidential debaters. He has the one-two punch of formidable natural gifts as a debater and a desire to work hard - in 1992, for example, he studied camera angles before the town-hall debate to see which shots would include his opponents or the audience.

"He basically strategized visually. Most of these guys are nowhere near that farsighted," says Schroeder.

Judging on the basis of last week's performance, Schroeder says neither Gore nor Bush can match Clinton. Gore, he says, is erratic as a debater but usually finds a way to get the job done. The vice president knows substance, but is not particularly creative. Bush, on the other hand, is a reluctant debater; like his father, "you can see his lack of enjoyment," says Schroeder. "The ones who are very good at it also kind of like it."

Some defining moments

If last week's face-off lacked a definitive winner, it may be because it contained no "classic debate moments." These are defining moments in a debate, Schroeder says, and many of them come at the 60-minute mark.

Previous classics include President Ford's declaration in 1976 that Eastern Europe was not under the control of the Soviets, and Lloyd Bentsen's stinging rebuke of fellow vice-presidential contender Dan Quayle in 1988: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

That quip and other famous debate lines - like Ronald Reagan's memorable 1980 refrain, "There you go again" - seem spontaneous but were actually crafted ahead of time, writes Schroeder.

'What would you do if....?'

In the future, Schroeder would like to see formats that test how candidates think on their feet. He says they also need to remember that this is TV -a president's second office and "every American's second tongue."

It's a visual medium, he argues: Why not use video clips of candidates' past comments and ask about them, as Tim Russert did this year in a debate between New York Senate candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio. "It brings some accountability to the debates," he says.

Another idea is to allow advisers into the debate, to see how the candidates make decisions and relate to others: "Do they listen, do they defer, do they throw up their hands?"

Or what about solving a case study? "This way, you get a sense of how people's minds work, they have to react, they have to think, and it's a much better test of one's intelligence than just memorizing stuff."

With the format decisions in the hands of the candidates, he doesn't see changes coming anytime soon. But he argues that making debates good TV should be a priority.

"I don't think that civics or politics has to be boring," he says. "The candidates themselves should be coming up with interesting ways to bring people into the process ... and thinking, 'What can we do, in a television sense, to stimulate interest in politics?' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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