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Political, communications experts expect Romney to be aggressor during first debate

Wednesday, October 3, 2012 | 6:32 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — As voters across the country prepare to watch the first round of presidential debates at 8 p.m. Wednesday, the Missourian talked with two MU professors to get their takes on what to watch for.

The debate, which is the first in a series of three between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, will feature a new format established by the Commission for Presidential Debates. The debate will be divided into six 15-minute segments, with time for each candidate to respond for two minutes. The moderator, MU graduate Jim Lehrer, will then lead a discussion for the remaining 11 minutes of each segment.

The first three will deal with the economy and the rest with health care, the role of government and governing.

The Missourian spoke with MU political science professor Marvin Overby and MU communications professor Mitchell McKinney to get their thoughts in advance of the debate.

Strategy

Overby: “At this point the candidates are boxers in the first round. They don’t know each other. They may not have even been in the same room up until now. They’ll be getting a sense of each other."

“Romney has the most to gain from this debate. He’s the challenger, he’s behind in national polls, and he’s behind in contested states. He needs to do something to upset those trends. He might want to be more aggressive to stand out, but that’s not the best approach. He’s less comfortable in his own skin, doesn’t have the aura or charisma of politicians like Bill Clinton, and he shouldn’t want to come off as condescending or disrespectful. It will seem off-key.”

“Romney will hammer away at the issues he and Paul Ryan have focused on. He’ll talk about how Obama’s administration has been a failure, point to the bad economic news and say Obama won’t do better in the future.”

“It will be interesting to see how much detail Romney will be pressured to give, especially concerning his tax plans. What tax exemptions would he allow, and what programs will he preserve funding for? For Obama, what is a specific goal of his for the future, what is his agenda for his possible second term?”

“But if I can think of those things, then both candidates’ campaigns definitely have. They’ve prepared answers for those questions.”

Mitchell: “In a presidential debate with an incumbent, we usually see the challenger taking an aggressive challenge to the incumbent, whose strategy will be to defend himself against the attack."

“I expect Romney to be aggressive, but that will be a challenge. He’ll have to remain polite and cordial while attacking and avoid seeming mean or unpresident-like. Obama will have to defend his record without seeming upset or apologetic.”

Format

Overby: “My guess is that the candidates would rather be standing up than sitting down.”

“Jim Lehrer is a very good moderator, he’s balanced, reserved and controlled."

“I’m generally a skeptic when it comes to the importance of debates. They don’t make much of a difference. It’s difficult to prove that past debates, however significant, really affected the outcome of the election. The new format won’t make much of a difference.”

Mitchell: “The new format the debate commission has chosen encourages more in-depth discussion. When two debaters are sitting at a table within arm’s reach of each other, they’re less willing to attack or engage in conflict, whereas standing behind a podium lets the debaters be more direct with each other. A table encourages more deliberate and reasoned discussion.”

Will it matter?

Mitchell was pressed for time and was unable to field a question about the potential impact of debates. Overby said he's not sure they prove to be such a big deal in the long run.

“Presidential debates only matter if a particularly significant event occurs, and those are rare," Overby said. "This debate will most likely just reinforce opinions rather than change them.”

“The past is prologue. We’ll see what we’ve already seen. Debates reflect the symptoms of the campaign. They rarely move the needle much.”

“The candidates are accomplished, experienced politicians. They’re meticulous and careful people by nature. They’ve prepared and practiced for the debate. They know how to give reasonably good answers that won’t get them into trouble.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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