For political junkies, the season has begun: Between now and January, barely a week or two will go by without a presidential debate. The Democrats have already staged their first, and at least 16 more are in the offing. Republican debate season will make its debut this Thursday, with so many candidates on stage (10) they'll need an extra-wide lens to capture them all. After that, expect at least 12 more forums. And perhaps even another GOP candidate or two joining the crowd on stage.
Chances are, most voters are not even aware that debates have started, let alone planning to tune in. But in a rare presidential cycle in which both parties have large, wide-open primary fields, these regular opportunities for voters to eyeball their choices and draw conclusions may expand the public's engagement in the process.
In addition, in the era of YouTube, the influence of these forums has the potential to go far beyond the real-time viewership. Debates are inherently risky affairs, and a gaffe will have an infinite shelf life on video-sharing outlets. A major candidate could doom his or her chances with an ill-considered comment or even something small like a glance or a gesture.
Chance for lesser-known candidates
But especially in the early going, when most candidates are still just trying to introduce themselves to the public, these events also represent a chance for lower-tier hopefuls to have a breakthrough moment and start some buzz.
"I think it's important to get candidates side by side," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, a presidential candidate who has struggled to gain traction, speaking at a Monitor breakfast last week. "I don't think you make the candidacy or lose it over a debate or two, [but] I think they're very helpful to have."
For the front-runners for the party nominations, the clear mantra is to play it safe. At last week's 90-minute Democratic debate in Orangeburg, S.C., the candidates regularly veered away from opportunities to bash one another and leading Republican candidates, instead focusing on their common adversary (President Bush) and the top issue of day (Iraq).
As time goes on, and the shape of the field appears to be more solidified, candidates may become more aggressive with one another. But for now, the large number of candidates and the time limits on responses allow the candidates to make it through a forum without much time to go beyond sound bites.
Telling moments in these forums
Still, even within those constraints, there is bound to be a telling moment or two. At the Democratic debate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois offered a meandering response to a question on how he would react to a major terrorist attack on two US cities (and, in effect, acknowledged that error by coming back to the question later in the evening) while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York came out with a crisper answer. The two are duking it out for true front-runner status in the Democratic field, and that moment probably provided the best opportunity for compare and contrast between them.
That "probably helped her a little bit," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. "But you've got to remember, most people are not watching those debates."
Still, there's the YouTube effect – a noteworthy debate moment that gets covered in the press, then snowballs into an online phenomenon. Why should a top-tier candidate put themselves at risk in that way, when, chances are, they would rather be out greeting voters in an early-primary state and raising money?
"The dynamic is that they're riskier to skip, because if you do, then you open yourself up to [the charge that] you're ducking with such a full field," says Evan Tracey, an expert on politics and the media at TNS Media Intelligence. In the early going, he adds, "it's more about spouting off talking points and getting off without any mistakes. In a 90-minute debate, with eight or nine candidates on stage, that's relatively easy to do."
As time wears on, the debate sponsors will face the tricky question of whom to include as legitimate candidates. For now, the sponsors are being inclusive.
Last Thursday, Mike Gravel of Alaska, a former senator who has been out of elective office since 1981 and a declared Democratic presidential candidate, was allowed to take part in the Orangeburg debate despite minuscule poll numbers. His participation provided some of the livelier moments of the evening ("Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?") and had the effect of making some of the liberal candidates on the stage look centrist.
But at some point, debate organizers may decide that the public is better served winnowing debates to the candidates they view as having more serious prospects of actually winning the nomination.
"The double-edged sword there is when they start to pick and choose who gets to stay in the debates, then they risk losing top-tier candidates," says Mr. Tracey. "I don't think any of the top-tier candidates really wants the small room right now. The big room limits the time a candidate can get – and the chance of making a mistake."