More than 200 years after Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr settled their differences with pistols on the shores of the Hudson, President Bush and John Kerry will engage Thursday in the modern – and somewhat more civilized – form of political combat.
Their debate, which will focus on foreign policy, will turn on a number of crucial questions, like what to do in Iraq, how to deal with nuclear ambitions in Iran and North Korea and how to fight AIDS.
But the major question, of course, will be, "Who won?"
That's especially crucial for Kerry, said University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato.
"Because he's behind he has to be more aggressive," Sabato said. "A tie is good enough for Bush. A win is necessary for Kerry and particularly in the first debate," because people tend to tune out after that.
As soon as the candidates depart the stage, party spin-meisters will say who they think won, and the media will start analyzing how well the competitors did.
But before they make their picks, those of you scoring at home can use this handy guide to rate key parts of the debate:
1) Firing Up And Reaching Out
Candidates face a twin task in debates, Sabato said, a wrinkle that the media often misses.
"The candidate has to charge up his base, charge up the partisans, so that the next week, the next month they're still talking about the great job their candidate did," he said. "At the same time the candidate has to say things that appeal to people who aren't swayed by partisanship."
But that's hard to do, Sabato said. So…
2) Just The Facts
In the first debate of 2000, Al Gore said that in 1998 he had "accompanied (FEMA director) James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out."
Only he hadn't. At the next debate, he had to admit to moderator Jim Lehrer, "I got some of the details wrong last week in some of the examples that I used, Jim, and I'm sorry about that."
Gore isn't the only one who's goofed on the debate stage. In 1976, President Ford famously, and erroneously, claimed there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."
Indeed, mistakes happen in debates, and they can be costly.
"I think that most people get a larger impression of the debates, but the press fixates on the mistakes, so if a mistake is made in the debate that becomes a big part of the press coverage," Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University journalism professor and author of the book "Presidential Debates," said. "Sometimes that has the potential to sway opinions."
3) Mr. Nice Guy
Attitude can be everything in a debate. Schroeder said a candidate must "take command. That means going on the offense rather than the defense because then you can push the subjects that you want to push and make the other guy react to you."
Another key, says Schroeder, is to "try to make an emotional connection to the audience, so that it isn't just about your policy positions, it's about who you are as a human being."
In addition, "I think good debaters are relaxed and want to be there," says Schroeder. Voters like someone who "seems like he is in his element" rather than one who "wishes he is somewhere else."
A case in point: Mr. Bush's father made a terrible impression when he checked his watch during the second debate in 1992.
Attitude can be important not only to who wins the debate, but to long-term impressions of the candidates. In 2000, Sabato says, "Gore just turned people off with the sighing, the invading Bush's space."
"It wasn't so much that Bush did beautifully," he said. "Bush did all right. Gore just blew it."
4) The Big Line
From Ronald Reagan's "There you go, again" in 1980 to Lloyd Bentsen's "You are no Jack Kennedy," a good zinger can be the most memorable part of a debate.
"They both have these lines they go in with that they will try to work into the debate," says Schroeder, including jokes, barbs for their opponent and memorable phrases.
"They go in with a lot of ammo in the way of scripted remarks. The question is, do you have a chance to use your ammo and can you make it seem natural?" Schroeder adds.
5) Looks Are (Almost) Everything
Style is at least as important as substance in the debates; candidates have to "look presidential," or at least not really bad.
This is why the debate rules agreed to by the campaigns require the debate commission to inform both camps at least three days in advance what color the backdrop will be, and to have the set completed and lit by the day before the debate.
The rules also specify that, "each candidate may use his own makeup person."
Makeup is widely considered to have made a major difference in 1960, when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy faced off in the first televised debates.
Nixon, a skilled debater, was deemed the winner by people who listened to the debate on radio. But Kennedy won on television, perhaps because he was tanned and had used makeup, while Nixon had just emerged from the hospital and declined any face paint.
In Al Gore's case, on the other hand, the problem was too much makeup. He looked a little plastic to some viewers, including TV comic Jay Leno, who joked that cosmetic company stocks had tumbled because "after the second debate, Al Gore's cut way back on how much makeup. That's going to affect sales."
6) The Main Idea
Amid all the posturing and image making, a debate is ultimately about ideas. And the closing statement allows candidates to frame the voters' choice. Plus, since many voters tune out of the campaign as soon as the debate ends, it could be a candidate's last chance to make an impression.
Reagan's closing line in the 1980 debate – "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" – is the best example of how to make a simple, critical idea stick.
"Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago?" Reagan asked. "Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago?"
Most voters evidently thought the answer was no, and Reagan triumphed.
7) The Expectations Test
As soon as the microphones are off, media commentators will begin talking about how the candidates did – not just versus each other, but against the expectations each faced.
Did the president mangle his words? Was Kerry rambling and wooden?
According to Schroeder, the "expectations game" developed in the late 1980s. It occurred, he said, "because debates are hard to score, because so much of the way you respond is subjective."
"Reporters are always looking some less subjective measure to judge by," he said. The expectations game seems to provide that.
But Sabato notes that while the media spin matters it also "goes in different directions."
The other "expectations" game for the two contenders to get right is each man's expectation of what the debate can do for his fortunes.
A recent CBS News poll indicates that 27 percent of respondents believe the debates will impact their decision on Election Day. While 27 percent looms large in a tight election, a solid 70 percent say the candidate clashes won't bear on their ballot.
A review of past CBS News polls shows debates have only a minor impact. In 1980 and 1996, the debates had negligible impact on the polls. In 1984, a majority believed Walter Mondale won the first debate but that barely dented Reagan's lead in the horserace. Ross Perot was believed to have won the first debate in 1992, but still came nowhere near even a second place position in the overall contest.
In fact, Sabato can think of only one example where a candidate who was behind in the polls used a debate performance to catapult ahead: George W. Bush in 2000, who enjoyed a ten-point swing in some polls, due mainly to Gore's poor showing.
"Kerry has to be the George W. Bush of 2004."
By Jarrett Murphy