Eric Rosen has a simple idea for those of you planning to watch tonight's debate among the Democratic presidential candidates -- PAY ATTENTION!
Mr. Rosen works for a foundation-underwritten group called Debate America that tries to get people to watch the debates. He helped write a pamphlet the group has distributed that suggests a way of structuring viewing for tonight's Candidate's Forum from the University of Maryland that will be on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, Thursday's nationally televised encounter on ABC, or indeed any of the debates.
"The whole idea is to get people to participate as they watch the debate," Mr. Rosen said. "We think the viewers' guide gives people that opportunity."
The instructions are pretty simple. Do a little research -- read newspapers, watch news programs -- beforehand. Decide what you think are the most important issues -- which can be anything from health care to leadership qualities. Write those issues down on a score card beforehand.
Then take some notes during the debate. Judge what the candidates say about your issues. Do they agree with your position? Did they persuade you that their view was correct? Score each candidate on each issue. You might even consider taping the debate and going back over it to check your first impressions.
The hope, according to Mr. Rosen, is that as you listen for a discussion of your specific issues, you will be paying close attention throughout. And, as you fill out your score card, you will be drawing your own conclusion about what went on in the debate, who won and who lost, and not judging it by what you are told by political "spin doctors" and other commentators.
"We suggest that people watch in a group because we thought it would get people more involved in watching and discussing the debate," Mr. Rosen said. "But we are concerned because if a candidate says something and people in the group moan and groan, that can sway your opinion. So we also suggest watching alone, too."
Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson State University, said that debates are overrated. "Studies have shown that it is a myth that they have a great deal of sway over the electorate," he said. "The more the support for candidates has solidified, the less the effect of debates."
However, Dr. Vatz did say that in a fluid situation, such as that of the current crop of Democratic candidates, debates can be more influential. And, in any case, they are still worth watching with care.
"Candidates go on the record on a variety of issues in debates," Dr. Vatz pointed out, noting that it was in a debate that George Bush called the plans of candidate Ronald Reagan "voodoo economics."
"A debate is also a good place to listen to see if a candidate is consistent, which is a way of telling if he has a real philosophical basis for his viewpoint or is just adopting ad hoc positions. It's clear from some candidates' performances in debates that they are willing to promise anything to that particular audience.
"And one thing I always look for in debates is how a candidate treats people who disagree with him, if he's reasonable with them. That can say something about how flexible a candidate's mind is, and just what sort of person he is."
Dr. Vatz, who has analyzed presidential debates for Channel 2 (WMAR) and WBAL radio, said that in his courses he teaches that "all persuasive styles are a combination of salience, what people will pay attention to, and meaning."
"So besides what a candidate says about the issues, listen to the issues he wants to talk about. This is what he considers salient," he said.
"Right now, for instance, Kerrey thinks that Clinton's draft record is salient, even though he didn't think so in New Hampshire. Why is that? The issues that a candidate chooses to raise in a debate can be as important in judging him as what he says about those issues."