What The Debates Will Reveal

Anyone who's worked on a campaign knows how hard it is for a candidate to show his true self, yet the debates can give voters some important insights

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Don EMMERT / AFP / Getty Images

George W. Bush (R) and Al Gore debate in their first debate, October 3, 2000.

“Just be yourself,” friends and campaign officials used to tell George W. Bush before the presidential debates in 2000 and 2004. The advice both annoyed and amused him. “Just who else do they think I would be?” he would ask.

Those giving the advice meant that they yearned to see the down-to-earth, relaxed, engaging person they knew in everyday life come across on television; those who have spent any time close to presidential debates know how extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, that task is.

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The debates are the high-wire act of the fall campaign, the most intense pressure points in the pressure cooker of the process of choosing America’s next president. They bring two candidates who’ve been running against each other from a distance suddenly up close and personal, often producing interesting insights into their styles and mannerisms.

I don’t think anyone remembers much of what was said in the first debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000; the news was all about Gore’s mummy-like make-up and exaggerated sighs. We prepared a retort for Governor Bush to use in the second debate if Gore continued his loud exhalations in response to the governor’s discussion of his leadership in Texas: “Stop sighing about my record!” But, of course, Gore had been warned and didn’t repeat the mistake.

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By the time Barack Obama and Mitt Romney walk on stage Wednesday night, their heads will have been crammed full of facts, lines of attack, suggested sound bites and possible answers to impossible questions. Having witnessed the intense preparations for his own father’s presidential debates, George W. Bush set a strict rule before his first and only debate with incumbent Texas Governor Ann Richards in 1994. If you have any ideas for what I should say, he told his staff and friends, do me a favor and don’t tell me, tell Karen. By the time debate night arrived, my head was so full of sometimes conflicting advice that I felt it might explode.

Debating is not a skill we require of presidents except in the fall campaign. To the contrary, most people who come into a president’s orbit every day tend to be deferential rather than challenging or combative. Yet debates reveal how candidates respond to pressure, whether they can articulate a vision and rebut attacks without seeming defensive or testy.

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Romney’s task on Wednesday night will be to come across as a strong, yet likable leader and connect the dots to explain why his policies will bring the change America so desperately needs. Obama will once again argue, as he did in his convention speech, for more time to pursue policies that thus far have failed to put America back to work. While many debates come down to a snappy sound bite or memorable exchange, I have a feeling this fall’s debates may feel bigger and more sweeping. Americans know the stakes are high and the issues are difficult — and the two men debating them have vast philosophical differences. Here’s hoping for a full airing in which we see glimpses of each candidate’s real self.