Debates help voters see beyond news bites, ads



WASHINGTON -- This is the season for political debates, for better or worse. Many of them are farcical recitations of candidates' standard stump speeches and compendiums of cliches.

But, as the confrontation between Ted Kennedy and Mitt Romney demonstrated in Boston the other night, they can be revealing even if not pure educational exercises.

The debate between the veteran Democratic senator and his Republican challenger turned out like most -- that is, with each candidate providing some fodder and encouragement for his partisans.

The 62-year-old Kennedy, whom Romney has been depicting as over the hill, showed he still has the force of personality and grasp of issues to make his case emphatically even with all that mileage on his face. And political neophyte Romney showed he is tough enough so that Kennedy could not blow him off the stage.

Although the debate didn't produce the kind of clear winner or loser political handicappers like to anoint, it probably was more helpful to the 47-year-old Republican if only because Romney was much more the unknown quantity who needed to project himself as a big-league player. His situation was not entirely different from one in the 1960 presidential campaign when the young John F. Kennedy proved he could deal on even terms, at the very least, with Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

But whatever the outcome, what was clear is that the debate gave voters in Massachusetts a better picture of their options Nov. 8 than they have been able to derive from any other facet of the long campaign. The unhappy truth these days is that campaigns are waged almost entirely in exchanges of 30-second television commercials and 15-second sound bites on the television news broadcasts. This is the age of the couch potato.

There is, of course, a dangerous flaw in the way debates have become institutionalized as the central events of political campaigns. Many voters, opinion surveys show, believe they can learn enough about the candidates -- even in a presidential campaign -- simply by watching the debates and thus pay minimal attention to newspaper and broadcast news reports along the way.

There is also the danger that one candidate or another will make the kind of gaffe, even if it is trivial, that will dog him for the rest of the campaign. Two years ago George Bush never recovered from a moment in a debate at Richmond, Va., in which he obviously didn't grasp a question from a woman in his audience trying to find out how his life had been affected, if at all, by the economic decline at the time.

This reliance on debates has been accelerated by the way commercials center on accusations that often have little or nothing to do with whether someone can serve effectively in the Senate or a governor's office. This year in particular, challengers from outside politics are being assailed in one state after another by charges they have been guilty of sharp business practices.

In the Kennedy-Romney campaign, for instance, the Republican has suffered serious damage from charges of union-busting at an Indiana company taken over by his investment capital firm. If you examine the facts, it is a bit of a stretch to hold Romney responsible for the labor dispute. But the issue is complicated, and neither commercials nor sound bites on the news can deal with anything more complex than shouts back and forth.

The first Kennedy-Romney debate didn't illuminate that issue, either. But it did serve to give the voters a more accurate picture of the two men than they had received up to this point. Kennedy is not a basket case; Romney is not out of his depth. Kennedy is liberal on the death penalty and welfare issues; Romney wants a harder line on both.

The most recent opinion polls show Kennedy has opened a lead of more than 10 points -- 18 percent in one survey -- over his challenger after a period when they appeared to be running dead even. The conventional wisdom is that traditional Democrats are returning to their normal pattern when confronted by the real possibility Kennedy might be defeated.

But anyone who has followed campaigns closely this year would doubt that this is a runaway for Kennedy by any means. And the debates have at least given Romney the chance to show himself to the voters of Massachusetts as more than a caricature in a 30-second commercial run by the Kennedy campaign.

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