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October 11, 2012

MARK BENNETT: No debating it: Candidates have it easier than ‘forensics’ specialists

Nightmares can jolt us awake, just before we fall off a cliff or show up for work or school unprepared.

If those seem disturbing, imagine suffering through this dream: You’re a contestant in a debate, with 20 minutes to prepare for an hourlong argument on a surprise topic — eliminating the World Bank. If you’re wondering, “What exactly is the World Bank?” then you understand what Jimmy Kirkpatrick and his fellow members of the DePauw University debate team felt in real life. (To spare you a Google search, the World Bank fights poverty by lending funds to developing nations.)

That scenario, last spring, was no dream. Kirkpatrick and his cohorts tackled the subject, cold turkey, and won a national collegiate debate championship, beating Boise State in the finals of the Phi Kappa Delta National Comprehensive Tournament in March at Overland Park, Kan. Talk about pressure.

President Obama and Mitt Romney have no idea how lucky they are, as debaters.

Coached on likely topics for days, even weeks in advance, the presidential candidates speak for two minutes on an issue pitched by a moderator, and then rebut each other. Collegiate “forensics” (the formal label for debating) dig deep into one topic for 60 minutes. By the end, the victor is clear. Facial gestures, posture and hair care take a back seat to substance.

“There’s more of a burden in the competitive debate,” said Kirkpatrick, a DePauw senior. “The opponent is really invested in answering each and every argument.”

By contrast, in the current season of nationally televised political debates, “I’m really looking for depth,” Kirkpatrick said, “and I really don’t see that.”

The series continues tonight in Danville, Ky., as Obama and Romney hand the debating reins to their vice presidential running mates, incumbent Joe Biden and Republican counterpart Paul Ryan. In the lone VP faceoff, Biden needs a strong performance to recapture momentum for the Democratic ticket after Romney’s aggressiveness surprised the president in the first of their three debates on Oct. 3. Obama-Romney Round 2 will be Tuesday at Hempstead, N.Y., with their finale Oct. 22 at Boca Raton, Fla.

In each case, the viewers’ sense of sight will likely determine who wins or loses the debates.

The short-answer format, extensive prep time, and the television cameras, themselves, alter the value.

“I personally think the end result, what you get, is canned arguments, rather than that extemporaneous discussion which makes a debate interesting,” said Geoff Klinger, coach of the DePauw national champ debate team and associate professor of communication at the university in Greencastle.

Removing the TV cameras would beef up the debates, suggests another DePauw professor, Jeff McCall.

Instead, reviews of the Oct. 3 duel dwelled on visuals — the president frowning, eyes looking downward at his notes, and Romney smiling dismissively at Obama. Camera shots from behind the stage in Denver showed President Obama standing with one foot down and the other tipped up on his toes, as if he wanted to leave, while the GOP nominee stood with two feet firmly planted. Political pundits noted those stances, too.

“I’m not sure we should be making our decisions based on those kind of visuals, when we should be basing them on ideas and words,” said McCall, professor of communication and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.”

The power of such misplaced attention emerged in the 1992 debate when incumbent George H.W. Bush famously checked his watch while a member of the audience asked Bush, alongside rivals Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, how the deep recession had affected him. That visual, more than the responses, stuck with viewers and voters, who elected Clinton, McCall explained.

He recommends a reworking of the debate format by reducing the role of the moderator, or eliminating that position altogether, and having the candidates directly question and rebut each other. McCall also thinks one, or all, of the debates should be limited to radio broadcasts, rather than TV. He acknowledged, though, “that we live in such a visually cultured world, [and] it would be very difficult for us to backtrack.”

Accepting the realities of the debates’ un-collegiate structure and superficial nature, McCall, Klinger and Kirkpatrick are watching closely, nonetheless. Kirkpatrick serves as co-host of “DePauwlitics,” one of the most popular programs on WGRE, the campus radio station. In the first 2012 debate, Romney appeared more confident and aggressive than Obama, and “used more rhetorical skills,” Kirkpatrick said.

“I think [the president] under-estimated Romney,” he added, and figures Obama must respond more forcefully in the next two debates.

Kirkpatrick’s debate coach agreed. The president needs to more aggressively defend his record “and be better prepared to deal with shifting positions by Romney,” Klinger said, while Romney’s challenge is “to keep the momentum going.”

Tonight’s veep clash could tip the close presidential race more than many politicos expect. “I think it’s going to be very significant,” Klinger said. The running mates typically function as attack dogs for the top of their ticket. Many already have penciled Ryan, the affable 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman and budget wonk, as a sure-thing to out-debate Biden, whose vast experience gets overshadowed by frequent gaffes.

“If [Biden] gets [Ryan] to slip into that wonkish mode, I don’t think that plays well to a general audience,” Klinger said.

Don’t expect an extended Biden-Ryan discussion of the World Bank, either.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

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