Debate Thyself

How candidates are defined before they take the stage.

Debate preparations at the Ford Center in Oxford, Miss.

The presidential debates have the feel of a boxing match: Two candidates trade blows across a carpeted stage with a moderator on hand to keep it clean. Despite the fight-night feel, though, a candidate’s biggest opponent in these debates is often himself. Looking back over the televised debates since 1960, I find that the memorable moments are largely the product of story lines about the candidates that take hold before he ever sets foot on the stage.

Slate V: John Dickerson looks back at some magic moments from past debates.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter took a hit because he mentioned that he’d asked his daughter, Amy, about the biggest trouble facing the country (she said nuclear weapons). Why did this matter? Because the rap against Carter was that he was an aimless leader. By turning to his daughter for advice, he confirmed impressions that he was a grasping chief executive. When Michael Dukakis gave a reasonable but dispassionate answer to a question about whether he would seek the death penalty for a theoretical rapist of his wife, it confirmed the cartoon of him as a passionless clerk. When George H.W. Bush looked at his watch (twice) during a town hall debate in 1992, it locked in his image as a president who didn’t much want to bother with the problems of regular folk. The list goes on.

The story line that exists before the candidate starts talking can also help him. The worry about John Kennedy was that he might be too inexperienced. When he presented himself as a confident man in control of his facts, facing the camera and directly addressing the audience, he carried himself in a way that addressed those doubts. In 1980 Reagan replied, “There you go again” in response to an attack by Jimmy Carter, and it inexplicably was big news. The AP wire story about the debate put it nearly at the top of the piece. Reagan’s little quip was considered important because it showed voters who thought he might be scary that he was avuncular. He also made Carter look unfair and icy.

So, what story lines do Barack Obama and John McCain have to overcome and confirm?

Barack Obama faces the Kennedy test: Can he come across as commanding? He’s a good performer, yes, but will he touch people in a direct way that goes beyond delivering his lines well? Obama outpolls John McCain on most attributes, but voters still worry about his ability to be commander in chief. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 48 percent of the country said he would be effective in that role. For many voters, this will be their first extended viewing of Obama. His performance in the debate may go a long way toward helping them decide whether he’s the kind of guy who can pull off all he’s promised both in his economic and foreign policies.

For McCain, the first challenge is to show up. That might help him avoid the first trap that the Obama campaign has been laying for him: portraying him as reckless. On Wednesday, Joe Biden attacked McCain not just as a man with bad ideas but as a man with dangerously bad ideas—suggesting he lacks the temperament for the job. McCain’s suspension of his campaign, and his threat (still open as of this writing) to skip the debate, added some new talking points for Obama aides who wanted to make this case. This may make it difficult for McCain to assert his arguments against Obama too directly for fear of looking too tightly wound.

The other trap Obama has been preparing for McCain is to portray him as out of touch. Much of the debate will be about economic issues, potentially dangerous turf for McCain. If he has another moment when he declares the fundamentals of the economy as sound, he’ll be in trouble. Then again, the expectations are so low for McCain on the economy that if he shows just a little mastery—speaking casually about credit default swaps, for example, or, even better, showing some fellow feeling with those who are suffering—it may well be enough.

McCain’s other challenge is to find a way to use the debate to meet one of his key campaign goals: proving to voters who want change that he can actually deliver. His campaign has accepted that the election will likely be determined by the candidate who can convince voters he is capable of changing Washington. That’s why both Palin and McCain use the word maverick so often when talking about themselves. But that assertion has not worked. McCain trails Obama by more than 30 percentage points when voters are asked which candidate can better bring change.

How he does this is not exactly clear. One long-shot theory would be to embrace his current campaign stunt and make the policy case for it. McCain’s aides insist that he wasn’t just grandstanding by “suspending” his campaign and rushing to Washington but that he had to make the trip to persuade Republicans to back some kind of deal. Maybe he could explain his recent swerve directly to voters and show how it is a model for the kind of shake-up he’ll bring to Washington. Or maybe simply failing to show up would be the clearest indication possible of just how determined he is to shake things up.