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Dissecting the debates

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Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 9:03 p.m.

Mitchell McKinney, director of graduate studies at the University of Missouri communications department, is a political communication scholar who has advised the U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates on how those events can be structured to better educate voters.

McKinney spoke to the Trib about the upcoming three debates between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney that kick off Wednesday night in Denver.

Q: Does the fact that Romney has been battle tested more recently than President Obama on the debate front give him any advantage going in?

A: At least initially, incumbent presidents in a debate series frequently don't seem at the top of their game, and I think that's because they aren't used to the dynamic. At press conferences (for example), they've been able to answer or speak for as long as they want. They've not been directly attacked as president. All of a sudden, they are back in this environment where someone is appearing as their equal, has equal time and is taking them on directly. So I think the president's challenge (will be) being disciplined now with what I think will be a well-prepared Mitt Romney.

Q: The Commission on Presidential Debates has recommended the candidates sit at a table with the moderator during the first debate. What difference does it make if they sit at a table or stand at a podium?

A: When we've analyzed debates, we've found that when two candidates are seated at a table literally inches from each other, the dynamic of their interaction leads to less stringent bombastic attacks. The candidates are prone to engage in a more reasoned, deliberate discussion (than) if they are on opposite sides of the stage and behind that podium in that formal setting.

Q: Can we expect the candidates to change their approach as the format moves from the table setting in the first debate to the town hall format in the second?

A: In the table (or podium) format, what we're watching is how the candidates interact with one another, how they defend themselves, their ability to go on the attack. In town hall debates, it's a completely different dynamic. We are looking at their ability to relate to so-called ordinary citizens.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the town hall debate. In that (inaugural) one, we saw very quickly the demand on candidates to relate to people. Bill Clinton knocked it out of the ballpark. George (H.W.) Bush appeared awkward and ill at ease. There is some of that same dynamic, I think, in this campaign.

Q: What should presidential debate participants always keep in mind going into the events?

A: (Challengers) should be careful with aggression. We expect some candidates, particularly those who may need debates to help them make up lost ground or to change the (campaign) dynamic, to attack. But there's a fine line with a presidential candidate between going on the attack and losing one's cool and not appearing presidential.

(For incumbents), the primary question is “Should you be re-elected?” In times of difficulty, they must defend themselves and their records. That can be difficult, particularly if that defensiveness borders on apology or outright admission of failure. So they have to defend without being defensive.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or

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