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Minding Our Business

 

Trying not to get voted off

Published by The State, April 26, 2007.

Thursday night viewing gets a change of pace from "CSI," "Grey's Anatomy" and "ER" this week with the Democratic candidates' debate from S.C. State University in Orangeburg. But like those shows, the debates — this is only the first — have an ensemble cast with a story arc that will play out over the next months.

In other ways, the debates and the greater challenge of the political campaign are more like "Survivor" and "American Idol." Only one candidate from each party is going to make it to the big finale in 2008. If we viewers got to phone or text message our votes right after the show Thursday night, we could start winnowing the field right now.

There is good reason to watch. The presidential hopefuls have been hopping around South Carolina for months, but this is an opportunity to see them lined up and start making some comparisons. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, assuming those Democrats are all on stage. One woman, one black, one native South Carolinian, one Hispanic (with a very WASPy name), one who's done this before, one patrician New Englander even if he is a Democrat, one complete and utter long-shot who knows this is a good way to get attention, if not votes.

We call them debates, though most are really more like grammar school recitations. In 90 minutes, with six or seven candidates and a moderator, each is likely to have only about 10 minutes of air time. That's enough for four or five short, well-rehearsed recitations. Prepare one on Iraq, one on the economy, one on trade — it's a South Carolina concern — one on education and, in light of the horror at Virginia Tech, one on gun control. Oh, yeah, there was also that Supreme Court ruling on abortion last week. Best be ready for anything.

Debate tactics vary from candidate to candidate. This early in the race, front-runners tend to play it safe and hope to look, well, presidential. Long shots may take more risks to show that they belong in the chase. All have one common objective: Avoid fatal gaffes.

To a significant degree, the tricky parts have been negotiated by the candidates' campaigns before the lights go up. Will they stand? Will they sit? Will there be opening or closing statements? May they directly address each other or only respond to the moderator? They will have drawn lots for where they are positioned on stage and the order of speaking.

You'd be astonished what a candidate so eager to face all that a president might on the world stage doesn't want to face on a debate stage. Some don't want their opponents to walk around, Oprah style: Ban wireless mikes. Some don't want to engage in dialogue. At one early debate in the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan tried to silence his challengers — "I paid for this microphone." Al Gore was admonished for his audible sighs during a 2000 debate with George W. Bush.

All this will be in the hands of NBC's moderator Brian Williams. NBC is using the more efficient and flexible single moderator approach. Fox News, airing the Republicans' debate from Columbia in May, plans a panel of three questioners. Fox can promote more of its on-air stars that way.

The moderator, in addition to asking the questions, may also be referee, traffic cop or provocateur. Williams will undoubtedly spend as much time preparing as the candidates.

I recall CNN's Bernard Shaw spending hours trying to get his questions just right for the 1988 debate between Vice President George Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis. Shaw's intent was to get the candidates away from the comfort of canned responses. Dukakis was staunchly opposed to the death penalty. Shaw asked: "If Kitty Dukakis (Dukakis' wife) were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis equivocated. The Dukakis campaign faltered.

I'll be watching the Democrats' debate with the students in my Media and Politics course. We hope to get an inside look at the preparations and proceedings when all the Republicans are on campus at the University of South Carolina next month.

(Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is also the senior contributing editor and consultant to www.schotline.com.)

 
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The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.


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