How US Voters Can Glean the Most from the Debates Series: The 96 Campaign: Race for the Presidency

Article excerpt

Right after President Clinton and Bob Dole face off in the first round of campaign debates in Hartford, Conn., Sunday night, political handicappers will assess the candidates' strategies, how they measured up against expectations, and who spoke the memorable line.

In short, they will be asking two questions: Who won, and how did the event reconfigure the horse race?

While the candidates are still on stage, however, it might be worth asking yourself a different set of questions: Are Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole explaining clearly why they want to be president? How do these men and their ideas differ? What do they agree on? And are they effective communicators? For both voters and the candidates, the fall debates offer the last, and arguably the most important, opportunity for dialogue in a presidential campaign. The three events - two between Clinton and Dole, one between vice-presidential contenders Al Gore and Jack Kemp - are a crucial part of each campaign's effort to spread its message. As many as 100 million viewers nationwide will tune in, many of whom live off the campaign trail or outside the media markets where the candidates run their advertisements. A large portion of the electorate may just now be weighing the choice seriously. In play is a sizable bloc of undecided or independent voters. "Asking who won or lost is silly," argues Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Debates offer a higher level of engagement and a lower level of attack. When you strip away all the talk about strategy, voters go back to the core issues - what matters to them and what's important nationally. The debates serve an informing function." Not that strategy is irrelevant. In the runup to Sunday's event, both sides are actively trying to influence expectations and develop punch lines. History provides little evidence that elections turn on the outcome of debates alone. It's argued that Sen. John Kennedy's debate performance against Richard Nixon may have won him the 1960 election. But more often the debates are when lasting impressions are created and campaign momentum is sparked. As President Ford's running mate in 1976, Dole earned a national reputation as a "hatchet man" by carping about "Democrat wars." Ronald Reagan, for example, bolstered his successful challenge against President Carter in the 1980 debates. THIS year, both Dole and Clinton view the debates as pivotal, albeit for different reasons. For Dole, the events mark his last opportunity to tip the balance in his favor. If he is to win the undecided bloc, his performance in the debates will be critical. …