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Debates go to Aggressor, Not the Aggressive

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
As a pollster, I understand how polling numbers can lead to the misimpression that televised debates never decide presidential elections. But I first got involved in competitive debate at age 14, and I was coaching state and national politicians in debate starting at age 20. My experience taught me that debates can be the difference.

The key to winning televised presidential debates, and ultimately the election, is for a candidate to come across as being the "aggressor," rather than being "aggressive." It's an important distinction.

The "aggressor" is the candidate who answers questions with forceful language and a laser focus that takes advantage of both the mood of the moment and the opponent's hesitancy and faulty logic. The "aggressive" candidate, by contrast, tries too hard and comes across as negative, petty or defensive.

John Kennedy indeed was more telegenic than Richard Nixon in the 1960 debates. But he bested Nixon also because he brilliantly hammered home the theme of "change," much as Barack Obama did in 2008. Kennedy was the aggressor.

The next televised presidential debates were in 1976. Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford were both aggressors. But Ford blundered badly by saying that Eastern Europe wasn't under the domination of the Soviet Union. Many Americans saw this as evidence that he didn't have command of the facts.

The tables turned in 1980. Ronald Reagan was the aggressor against Carter. Reagan combined a deft handling of the facts with timely humor. ("There you go again!" said Reagan, famously.)

Oddly, it was Reagan who came across as weak in his first debate against Walter Mondale four years later. That got the press speculating whether Reagan was getting too old to remain president. But Reagan rescued himself in the next debate. His knockout blow was a funny line about how he wouldn't hold Mondale's youth and inexperience against him.

Now consider the 1988 debates between Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and Vice President George H.W. Bush. Dukakis had already taken a pummeling in a televised ad that revealed that he had ordered the prison release of convicted killer Willie Horton. Horton got out and then raped someone.

Dukakis made things worse in a debate. When asked what he would do if someone raped his own wife, Dukakis answered with a lukewarm defense of why the death penalty fails to deter crime. His answer appeared to show no personal concern for his wife. He lost the election.

Four years later, it was George H.W. Bush who looked weak and frustrated. He was clearly irritated that he had to share the debate stage not only with Bill Clinton, but also with third-party candidate Ross Perot. Then, at one point, Bush glanced at his watch as if he were bored or impatient. He was no aggressor that night.

Then there are those candidates who are "aggressive" but not the "aggressors." They are determined, but not upbeat and smooth. When Bob Dole ran for president in 1996, he had already earned a reputation as being a political pit bull on behalf of Gerald Ford when the two ran as the Republican ticket in 1976. Dole hadn't a prayer of being the aggressor against Bill Clinton. He was too much on the defense. Clinton breezed into the White House.

There are assorted ways to be the "aggressor." George W. Bush had a pithy and somewhat smug style in his debates with Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Gore came unraveled. He could be heard sighing out loud and trying to interrupt the unflappable Bush in a series of debates that took Gore from the lead to a photo-finish loss. Gore was too aggressive, and he paid the price.

Following a debate against John Kerry in 2004, Bush was accused by some of having a device on him that somehow fed him answers. But the "jacket bulge" theory never gained traction. And despite Bush's having scowled in the first debate, he managed to skate through all the debates more or less unscathed. He was re-elected.

Barack Obama in 2008 was the aggressor before his debates against John McCain even started. McCain wanted to cancel the first debate. He argued that the economic crisis that had unfolded just days earlier required him to stay in Washington. He finally agreed to debate, but most observers gave the edge to Obama. He seemed better prepared.

One can argue that the leader in the national polls before the start of the presidential debates usually wins the November election. But that view leaves out the perilous things that can happen in the heat of a debate. Recall Reagan's first, ugly performance against Mondale, or major blunders like the one by Dukakis.

Watch for the "aggressor" in the upcoming Obama-Romney debates. And beware of any candidate who gets too "aggressive."

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