Even in the digital age, presidential debates still matter

10:46 PM, Oct 2, 2012   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Presidential debates may or may not sway swing voters, but they still matter to voters who want to see how the candidates perform in a less scripted format.

"In this election, where the polls are so close and the number of swing voters is so small, even a very small shift could actually affect the outcome of the election," Kathyrn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political science professor, told KARE.

But whether President Obama or Gov. Mitt Romney can break through to those swing voters from that stage at the University of Denver is a different question.

"The complicating factor is that these undecided voters are actually the least likely to tune into these debates, because they're the least politically engaged," Pearson explained.

"On the other hand they are likely to pick up the spin in the media, and the media love to declare winners and losers of these debates."

Presidential debates generally aren't scored the same as competitive forensics, however. The pundits tend to seize on memorable quips and zingers, and the viewers often rate the contenders based on their non-verbal communication.

"You can't have a personality transplant as a result of two days of debate preparation, but you can get the best that you can out of your candidate, " Doug Kelley, a former U.S. attorney who practices law in the Twin Cities, told KARE.

"These days you videotape the candidate, and then you watch him, and you make him watch himself, and run it back and say you're blinking your eyes 400 times a minute,"

Kelley learned the ropes of debate prep back in 1988 when he served as Senator Dave Durenberger's chief of staff.  He said Durenberger was caught off guard in his first debate with then-Attorney General Skip Humphrey.

The Democratic challenger started asking Durenberger questions the moderator hadn't planned to ask, and then asked him to join him in a mutual pledge to drop all negative advertising.

"Senator Durenberger is a very cerebral man, but he was so unprepared for that. His chin just dropped and he was asking himself how can this be happening?"

Kelley said he called in Reagan adviser Roger Ailes to put Durenberger through intensive rehearsals, so he could turn come back stronger in the next match.

"One of Roger Ailes rules was to connect with the heart first, and then after you're done explaining that, how do you feel about this, then you go to the second part which is the intellectual part."

Kelley recalled that Michael Dukakis, for example, lost a lot of points in the 1988 presidential debate for the way he responded when asked if he'd change his stance on the death penalty if his own wife were raped and murdered.

Dukakis answered no so quickly, it seemed as if he hadn't given the scenario any thought.

"Dukakis answered straight from the head and not from the heart at all," Kelley said. "And I think people recognized how bad that question and answer was for him in that election."

Kelley drew on his experience in the Durenberger-Humphrey debates when he served as an advisor for Norm Coleman in his 2008 debates with Al Franken.

"Incumbents can't make the mistake of thinking they're going to win the debates simply because they've been in office and no more about how do the job," Kelley said.

"If they're not going to follow the rules you need to be prepared. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to react and not be be shocked?"

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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