Presidential debates: Top tips on how to prepare

A camera shoots images at a debate (Getty Images); George H W Bush, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton at a debate in 1992 (AP); George Bush and Al Gore debating in 2000 (AFP); A presidential debate sign (Getty Images)

In a few hours, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will face each other in their first presidential debate. The debates are widely regarded as one of the key moments in the US election campaign. How does a candidate prepare for this most crucial of duels?

"It's a 24/7 event for months," says Republican Judd Gregg, who helped George W Bush with his debate prep in 2000 and 2004.

The former governor and senator from New Hampshire, was called upon to fill that most critical of roles - the sparring partner, playing the part of Al Gore in the mock debate sessions in 2000, and then John Kerry four years later.

"It's an extraordinarily important responsibility," says Gregg, and "very intense", involving months of getting into the mind of the opponent, watching tapes and scouring speeches.

Start Quote

You don't want 10 people in the room yammering at the candidate”

End Quote Eli Attie Al Gore's former speechwriter

"You don't mimic the voice, or comb your hair the same way," says Tad Devine, a senior adviser and strategist who worked during the same period with the Democratic presidential contenders. But that aside, the role of the sparring partner is to recreate the persona of the opponent, right down to the smallest of details.

This year Ohio Senator Rob Portman has been playing Obama in Romney's debate prep, a role he appears to have taken on with gusto.

"I want to kick him out the room, he's so good," Romney has said of his performance.

President Obama has been ensconced for the last three days in a debate camp in Nevada, with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry playing the role of Romney.

The rules

Jim Lehrer
  • Starts 21:00 EST (02:00 BST) on Wednesday 3 October in Denver, Colorado, lasts 90 minutes
  • Focused on domestic policy
  • Moderator is Jim Lehrer of PBS NewsHour (above)
  • Six 15-minute sections on economy, healthcare, role of government and governing
  • Each section begins with question from moderator, candidates have two minutes to respond. The remaining time is given over to discussion.

Commission on Presidential Debates

The months of preparation for George Bush's debates in 2000 included 10 or 12 full mock debate sessions, mostly at his ranch in Texas, says Gregg.

"It's best to start as soon as possible," agrees Devine, but it is only after the conventions, he says, that "you really have the frame" on your opponent and can hone your strategy accordingly.

Some candidates like to re-create the setting as much as possible.

Al Gore, for example, wanted the presidential debate room replicated right down to the position of the podiums, and even the "ambient temperature" in the room, says Devine.

As to the prep team, it is best to keep this small, and tight.

"You don't want 10 people in the room yammering at the candidate," says Eli Attie, who worked with Bill Clinton, and was part of Gore's debate prep team in 2000 before working as a writer and producer on The West Wing.

After the mock debate sessions, the team would huddle to discuss, he says, but giving feedback to the candidate was the responsibility of one top strategist.

A couple of zingers

  • "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" - Lloyd Bentsen to Republican Senator Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate
  • "I don't think that Senator Dole is too old to be president. It's the age of his ideas that I question" - Bill Clinton, 1996

"Obama has a very small, tight circle of people he really trusts," says Attie. "I'm sure that no one other than those people will be whispering into his ear at debate prep sessions."

A key task for the debate prep team is to put together a briefing book on policy, for the candidate - or more likely, several of them - as well as a position book (or books) detailing the opponent's stance on all the key issues.

The team will try to anticipate the questions - not just in terms of the subject matter, but right down to the possible phrasing, says Devine, with a team of researchers pouring over archive interviews by the moderator, looking for clues.

Even high school students are getting in on the debate preparations

Don't expect to hear anything much new - a candidate will generally be advised to stick to familiar territory, says Attie, using tried and tested material, which has been run past focus groups. More than 95% of material on debate night tends to fits into this category, he says.

"You are not trying to re-programme them," says Attie. "You take their greatest hits and distil it down."

Sharp one-liner attacks known as "zingers" - are a key part of this, and can be very effective.

The big debate in US media

  • "When the subject is one he's prepared for, he rarely falters," says James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic about Romney. But "many of his ad-libbed responses turn out to be mistakes ('I'll bet you $10,000')"
  • Romney has been doing debate prep since June, according to The New York Times and has been honing his zinger lines since August
  • Obama's campaign team have meanwhile been telling journalists how little time he has had to prepare, because of his heavy workload as president. Sceptics say this is just a game of managing expectations
  • "One botched response, a roll of the eyes, or - heaven forbid - a truly revealing moment will mean the difference between winning and, well, being John McCain," writes GQ's Robert Draper
  • Romney has fallen behind Obama in the polls - pundits tell Politico he needs "the debate of his life" if he's to reset his campaign

"I will not make age an issue of this campaign," said Ronald Reagan in 1984 when asked if, at the age of 73, he would be able to stand the rigours of another four years as president. "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," he said, to much laugher - including from his rival Walter Mondale.

Another thing that can work well are so-called riffs, says Attie, where a candidate builds up a kind of "rhetorical rhythm" using repetition. They are not designed to be memorable, but a useful "hook on which to hang an answer", he says.

Obama used the technique in 2008 in his first debate against John McCain, saying, with reference to the state of the economy: "And you're wondering, how's it going to affect me? How's it going to affect my job? How's it going to affect my house? How's it going to affect my retirement savings or my ability to send my children to college?"

But things don't always go to plan, and Attie admits he sometimes cringes hearing his crafted lines delivered on the night.

"Sometimes they totally flub it. These are not actors, but they are being called on to achieve a certain level of performance."

The rivals Strengths Weaknesses

Assessment by Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates

Barack Obama
  • Strong on projecting authority
  • Well-versed on issues
  • Already has the presidential stature
  • Has difficulty making his points succinctly
  • Fairly abstract in his language and approach
  • Can come across as aloof
Mitt Romney
  • Lots of recent debate experience
  • Familiarity with the issues
  • Not intimidated by his opponents
  • Not naturally spontaneous
  • Has had problems with likeability
  • Awkward moments in some debates

One of the most important rules, says Devine, is to have a central message that you - without being too obvious, or sounding too forced - drive home to the audience repeatedly.

Another is to make sure you answer the question, and do so right away - what is called "front-end responsiveness".

"Once you've answered, you get tremendous latitude, to go on and talk about what you want to talk about," says Devine.

A month of debates

  • Thursday 11 October - vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan on foreign and domestic issues
  • Tuesday 16 October - second presidential debate, town hall format, with questions from audience on foreign and domestic issues
  • Monday 22 October - final presidential debate, focus on foreign policy
  • Presidential election on Tuesday 6 November

More election coverage

A quick "yes" or "no" often does nicely, and allows you time to "pivot and talk about the other guy's plan".

Don't get personal is another rule - this is dangerous territory. But if your opponent attacks you, you have the right to reply.

"There is a lot more latitude in counter-punching than punching," says Devine.

But for all the talk of strategy and technique, above all else, says Judd Gregg, the goal of the debate is to make the audience feel that you are ready to lead the country.

Body language and appearance can play a big part of this - a fact that was made abundantly clear right from the very first presidential TV debate, in 1960, where Richard Nixon looked ill-at-ease next to a tanned and smooth-looking John F Kennedy.

In his memoir, Nixon himself conceded: "I paid too much attention to what I was going to say and too little to how I would look."

Richard Nixon - 1960 debate with Kennedy

All sorts of tricks have been used through the years to help with appearances - Michael Dukakis' staff were so concerned that "he would look tiny" in comparison to George Bush Sr in their 1988 debate, that they built him a special concealed "mound" to stand on, which was hidden under the carpet behind his podium.

Another golden rule for candidates is to remember that the camera is always on.

Bush Sr made the mistake of glimpsing at his watch during his 1992 debate against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot - giving the impression that he couldn't wait for it to be over.

In their own words

  • "Nobody's going to package me, nobody's going to make me put on an act for television" - Richard Nixon, before first ever TV presidential debate in 1960
  • "The longest walk I've ever taken" - Walter Mondale on walking to podium for a presidential debate
  • "I just had more facts and figures poured at me for weeks than anyone could possibly sort out and use, and I call it overtraining" - Ronald Reagan on his 1984 debate prep
  • "Ugly, I don't like 'em" - George Bush Sr on debates
  • "I am convinced that the debates I went through, especially those three in 1992, actually helped me to be a better president" - Bill Clinton
  • "The interesting thing about presidential debates is that I don't think you can ever win them, but you darn sure can lose them" - George W Bush

Gore's sighs while George W Bush gave his answers in 2000 were similarly damaging, and broke another rule - never show disdain for the opposition.

This is one that President Obama would be well-advised to watch out for on Wednesday night, says Attie. "I don't think he loves Mitt Romney - he has a tendency to have a slightly dismissive tone."

On the day of the debate itself, the candidate tends not to do any last-minute preparation.

There might be a very light schedule, but the main aim is to clear the mind and try and relax, says Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High Risk TV.

Behind the scenes, the TV production team goes to great lengths to make sure the rivals don't bump into each other.

The seating plan for the spouses sometimes takes some thought too - Reagan, it is said, liked to be able to clearly see his wife Nancy during his debates.

When Obama and Romney meet on the debate stage, it will reportedly be their first face-to-face meeting in almost five years.

George H W Bush looks at his watch during a 1992 presidential debate Debates are against the clock

Occasionally a candidate might throw in a little surprise to throw their rival off-guard, says Schroeder - like Reagan putting his arm out to shake Jimmy Carter's hand, or Sarah Palin's "Hey, can I call you Joe?" to then-Senator Biden in the 2008 vice-presidential debate (although it is said that she may have genuinely had a problem in rehearsals with his surname).

But with all this preparation, how similar is the prep to the real thing?

The questions are, on the whole, pretty predictable - as are most of your opponent's answers, says Attie.

But, he says, there is nothing that can recreate the tension of a live debate, with your real opponent, in front of an audience of millions.

"The greatest politicians do better in the real ones. The greatest come alive when the stakes are high. They want the pressure - that's when they do their best."

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