The first debate: It's not about the zingers

By Stuart Stevens comment

Very few people make it into the Super Bowl of presidential debates. So you might as well have the time of your life. Photo / AP
Very few people make it into the Super Bowl of presidential debates. So you might as well have the time of your life. Photo / AP

COMMENT

It started to hit me that debate prep might actually be fun when I realised that George W. Bush had to answer pretty much any question I asked.

That was in 2000, and I was playing the moderator in Bush's debate preps. Those started somewhat surreptitiously in the northern spring of 2000 and continued through to the final "town hall" debate in St. Louis.

When Dick Cheney became the Republican vice-presidential nominee, he immediately began intense prep, and most of our little debate prep team started doing double duty.

Since then I've been part of scores of debate preps, most recently with Mitt Romney in 2012, and I've come to a few conclusions about the process.

1 No candidate likes to prepare the same way

Bush believed that full-length mock debates were a waste of time. We had only one before his first debate with Al Gore, instead concentrating on shorter, single-issue-focused mini-debates. Dick Cheney insisted on full-length mock debates that were as close to the real thing as possible, even starting at the same time of night as the real thing. Both approaches worked.

2 Small is good

For some reason, people find debate preparation fascinating and clamour to be involved. Nothing destroys a prep faster than too many opinions. Keep it small and get good at saying no to even the best intentioned.

3 Have a clear strategy, with defined goals for every debate

This can't be something vague, like "win the debate". Analyse the strategic imperatives of the moment and formulate three or four specific goals. They can be offensive (disqualify opponent's tax plan) or defensive (deal with X scandal and put it to rest). Inevitably, much of a debate will not matter, just as there are a lot of three-and-out plays in a football game. It's up to each candidate to create the few moments that will define the debate. If left to chance, odds escalate that those moments will favour your opponent.

4 Control the tone

There is always a threshold question for every debate prep team: Do we want a hot or cool debate? It's a critical decision that can drive much of the prep. Even against the most aggressive questions from a moderator or assaults from an opponent, a candidate can always de-escalate or escalate, if prepared. When it's a candidate's turn to speak, it's like that moment in a basketball game when a player has the ball and is setting up for a play. I always tell candidates to take a beat, see the court, enjoy the control. Most mistakes are made in a debate when a candidate is following, not setting, the rhythm and intensity of exchanges. That's how a candidate gets baited into a heated response. You have a minute-and-a-half to three minutes to say anything you want. Relax, take a breath, run your play.

5 Forget "zingers" or scripted lines

Every candidate loves to have an arsenal of one-liners, both defensive and offensive. This is an understandable but terrible instinct. Debates are arguments, and the key to a great debate is to understand your argument and prosecute it. Most actors can't land great lines in one take. Looking for that perfect chance to deliver a great line takes a candidate's mind out of the argument. For every great debate moment involving a scripted line, there are countless lost moments when candidates were preoccupied with trying to get a line in.

6 Don't make policy news in a debate

In the pressure cooker of a big debate, there can be a tendency to start ad-libbing policy as an answer to a tough question (as when John McCain announced a massive mortgage buy-back plan out of the blue while debating Barack Obama). This leaves a campaign scrambling to put together backup, talking points and white papers on the fly. Use a debate to say what you have said before, just better.

7 Don't swim upstream

We've all seen this happen, and it never works well: A candidate takes time to correct the record on something said earlier by an opponent or moderator. Nine times out of 10, the audience has forgotten whatever was said, and bringing it up again only reminds them and increases the damage. Let it go. (If I were prepping Hillary Clinton, I'd advise her to hit Donald Trump with constant charges. He responds to everything.)

8 Have fun

Very few people make it into the Super Bowl of presidential debates. It's taken more work than anyone can imagine. You've earned it. Embrace it. Few presidential races are decided by debates. So you might as well have the time of your life.


- Stevens, a Republican political consultant, was chief strategist for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.

- Washington Post

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