Debates stress substance over style

In an age when literally hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of TV commercials dominate presidential campaigns, the presidential debates are a welcome antidote to voters who want more than 30-second attack spots. The debates are the last remaining opportunity to see candidates, at least partially unscripted, discuss in more detail the substantial challenges facing our country today.
I believe these debates will be among the most heavily watched in U.S. history and have the potential to be as influential to the outcome as Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 or Reagan-Carter in 1980. As in those years, apprehension about the future and ambivalence about alternatives and available choices are generating substantial public interest in hearing more about the candidates than conventional campaigning and paid advertising can provide.

The good folks at the Commission on Presidential Debates have designed the rules so as to allow for extensive discussion of the major issues and interaction between the candidates. The moderator will pose a question and after two-minute answers by each candidate, will guide the discussion for each segment that will last a total of 15 minutes, giving each candidate ample opportunity to outline his views.

Presidential debates are not about freelancing. Candidates seldom introduce totally new concepts and ideas into these forums. The campaigns treat these encounters as restating basic themes, but with slightly different packaging for making appeals to key constituent groups or fine-tuning the overall message. Much of what viewers hear will be recycled from the campaign trail. However, a skilled moderator can use follow-up questioning to elicit more detail on the topics chosen.
For their part, debates help viewers to form overall portraits of the candidates. Partisans look for reasons to confirm their biases, but the small group of “soft” partisans and undecideds will take away a few key facts or impressions that might very well determine their ultimate choice.
Both men are strong and tested debaters. President Barack Obama does well from a set script. His cadence and timing are excellent, though he got lost at times in detailed exchanges in some 2008 primary debates.

Mitt Romney is a solid “baseline” player. He makes few mistakes and is an excellent counter-puncher, quick on his feet and always in command of the facts. His task will be to frame his arguments in ways that appeal to voters still weighing the import of his economic proposals.
What impressions and ideas will each candidate want to leave with the voters?
For Obama, he will want to show that as an incumbent president, he is well versed with the issues and the challenges facing America. He will refer to his record and his actions in office to illustrate a point whenever possible, and he’ll seek to take credit for the positive developments over the past four years. He will look to energize his base of minorities, women and young people.