Friday, September 26, 2008

TV debates could be make-or-break for Obama, McCain

After watching black-and-white footage of his now-legendary 1960 debates against Richard Nixon,

John Kennedy gazed in admiration at the TV set and reportedly told his aides, "We wouldn't have had a prayer without that gadget."

More than four decades later — in an era of high-definition, multiple channels and YouTube — another set of televised presidential debates will likely play a crucial role in deciding who lands in the White House. When Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama face off tonight in the first of three meetings, they'll have the eyes of a nation upon them.

"Some years, you have to struggle to round up an audience, but this year, it's appointment television," said LinksChuck Barney's TV Freak blogTelevisionSpecial Fall TV sectionBarbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State. "There's an incredible amount of interest and that means the candidates are facing a high-reward/high-risk situation. It's probably the most important debate since Kennedy-Nixon."

With the polls in flux and the economy in turmoil, the presidential and vice presidential debates are likely to top the record-breaking 40 million viewers who tuned in to watch the candidates' speeches during the conventions. All the broadcast and cable news networks will carry the three 90-minute sessions, and CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, who is set to moderate the third debate, is bracing for some seminal moments.

"I think the election will turn on these Advertisementdebates," he told the Austin American-Statesman. "It's going to be like the Super Bowl or 'American Idol,' with a lot of people watching at the same time. And a lot of people are going to make up their minds then, too."

Tonight's clash of the candidates, moderated by PBS's "NewsHour" anchorman Jim Lehrer, will focus on foreign policy and national security. By now, both men have been thoroughly coached by campaign strategists and TV consultants. Still, they'll need to be on guard against making flubs.

"On one hand, this is a wonderful opportunity for them. It's free TV time and a chance to reach millions. On the other hand, every mistake is amplified," said Joe Tuman, a professor of communications at San Franscisco State and author of "Political Communication in American Campaigns."

"In some ways, you can't really win the debate; you just don't want to lose it by screwing up," Tuman said.

Tuman cites the 1992 town-hall debate between George Bush and Bill Clinton and how Bush appeared uneasy when a woman in the audience asked him how a deep recession had personally affected him. While seeming to struggle with the question, Bush infamously checked his watch.

When Clinton fielded the same question, he stepped toward the woman, looked her straight in the eye and spoke of how his experience as the governor of a small state drew him closer to the struggling and the jobless.

"That had an enormous effect," said Tuman. "Clinton came across as empathetic. And it just reinforced the image of Bush being out of touch with ordinary citizens."

And like it or not, sometimes image is everything — or close to everything, according to O'Connor, who claims that roughly 80 percent of what viewers take away from such encounters are "nonverbal impressions."

"It's a trust thing," she said. "You look at them and ask, 'Am I comfortable with them? Is this someone I'd like to have dinner with?'"

With that in mind, it's important that Obama and McCain come across as personable and confident, without projecting cockiness.

"If you were scoring the 2000 debates between Al Gore and George Bush on content alone, you might give the edge to Gore," Tuman said. "But on camera, he came across as sort of a know-it-all, like he was so much smarter. And people interpret that as arrogance."

This year, the on-camera impressions the candidates make figure to be even more crucial considering how they'll live on long after debate night via Internet video — something a sweaty and unshaven Nixon never had to fret about in 1960.

"It's not just about who watches the live telecast anymore. It's about how things get teed up afterward," O'Connor said. "Thanks to viral video, every gaffe, every goof-up will be edited, chopped up, photo-shopped and disseminated all over the place as it takes on a whole new life."

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