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Not designed as entertainment, debates shed light on candidates

The amount of discussion this week leading up to the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney rivaled a Super Bowl pregame show for the depth of analysis, searing speculation and pure overkill.

Talking heads on all the major networks were discussing Romney’s game plan for the first five minutes of the Oct. 3 debate and what he would have to do in order to seize the momentum from the president. Several urged a verbal attack the likes of which the Republican challenger has never embraced. The topic, selected in advance, was domestic policy, and the commentators did everything except tell Romney what color tie he should wear.

This week’s debate was hosted by the University of Denver and moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS.

Filling more air in the Sunday morning repertoire, at least one network served up a collection of gaffes from previous presidential debates. It looked as if they were hoping to put a hex on this year’s meetings. If I were either candidate, I would have changed the channel. The mental image of Richard Nixon sweating – literally – while trying to counter the charisma of John F. Kennedy in a 1960 debate is something no candidate wants in the back of his mind while attempting to win the support of voters.

Two additional debates are scheduled between the White House hopefuls. The debate on Tuesday, Oct. 16, will have less structure than the first. To be held at Hofstra University and moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN, it is billed as a “town meeting,” in which citizens will ask questions of the candidates on foreign and domestic issues. Candidates each will have two minutes to respond, and an additional minute for the moderator to lead a discussion. Town meeting participants will be undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization.

Foreign policy will be the topic when the final debate is held on Monday, Oct. 22. The format will be the same as in the first debate. Bob Schieffer of CBS will be the moderator.

Voters need to remember that these broadcasts are not entertainment and that they should not be waiting to tweet about the first slip of the tongue or sign of indecision. These debates are useful to hear the candidates’ answers as well as to see how they react when challenged or backed into a corner. Here, Romney may have an edge because of the lengthy process of capturing the Republican nomination.

He has been trading jabs with members of his own party since the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10.

Obama, on the other hand, has the luxury of speaking on important decisions and policies from a podium in the East Room.

He gets sole possession of the floor at these times, but that autonomy costs him the razor-sharp edge needed when sparring in the political ring.

That advantage may prove to be a disadvantage if Romney seizes the moment.

Not to be overlooked is the vice presidential debate Oct. 11 between incumbent Joe Biden and Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan. It will cover both foreign and domestic topics and be divided into nine time segments of approximately 10 minutes each. The venue will be Centre College in Danville, Ky., which hosted the 2000 showdown between Dick Cheney and Joseph Lieberman. Next week’s event is being called “Thrill the ‘Ville II” and will be moderated by Martha Raddatz of CNN.

These four debates are the last rungs in the ladder to the presidency. As an audio-visual experience, they will require an open mind and only a modest level of attention from registered voters.

Neither candidate will have the opportunity to kiss any babies or speak from a bullhorn. The decorum of a respected center of higher learning is an ideal backdrop for the issue before us.

The election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 6. That day, you are the moderator.

(David F. Sherman a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of approximately 75,000 homes. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at


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