Candidates define rules of engagement

Careful staging is going into presidential debates thanks to others' experiences

September 22, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

When Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry appeared on Late Night With David Letterman Monday, he took the opportunity to lob a few gibes at his opponents in the race for the White House.

The Massachusetts senator's team had been wrangling with the George Bush campaign over the ground rules for the series of three nationally televised presidential debates that will begin next week, and he told Letterman's audience he'd found one at least one he could live with.

"We compromised," he quipped, "and George Bush is going to sit on Dick Cheney's lap."

As a swipe at Bush, it didn't rank with Don Rickles' best. But even if he scored a few points at Bush's expense, Kerry was hardly exaggerating the specificity of the regulations both sides have finally agreed to for the debates, scheduled for Sept. 30 and Oct. 8 and 13.

More than 30 pages of do's and don'ts will place strictures on camera angles, rein in the speakers' physical wanderings, and, yes, even limit to one the number of staff members allowed to lurk in the wings. (After a required opening handshake, no one may enter a candidate's designated space - lap or otherwise.)

Experts say there's history behind every rule. Diana Carlin, a University of Kansas communications professor, says students still roar when she shows tape of the debate between George Bush the elder and Michael Dukakis in 1988. When the two shook hands, Bush towered over his 5-foot-7-inch opponent, but as Dukakis took the podium, he seemed magically to rise.

"They had a little `pitcher's mound' for him," she says, laughing. "People could see right through that ploy, and it really hurt Dukakis."

This year's rule banning "risers" of any kind could actually matter, as the shorter candidate has only won twice in U.S. history, according to Carlin, including Jimmy Carter in 1976. That would seem to help the 6-foot-4 Kerry against Bush, a mere 6-footer. Studies have shown that a taller person tends to be seen as more credible than a shorter one, but not everyone subscribes to the theory.

"That doesn't take into account the stringbean of a candidate who jabbers like an idiot," Kurt Ritter, a professor of presidential rhetoric at Texas A&M, says with a laugh.

Ever since the historic Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, the first to be shown on TV, scholars have dissected the effects of visual cues from hair color to perspiration. This year, there will be no shots of candidates when they are not actually speaking, a rule most likely inspired by the infamous moment in 1992 when a camera caught the elder George Bush eyeing his watch as Bill Clinton spoke. Rightly or wrongly, the gesture suggested boredom, which focus groups said badly damaged Bush.

Likewise, there will be no camera shots from the rear. Towson University professor Martha Kumar, an expert in presidential discourse, says that might be an effort to keep unconscious quirks off the screen. "Some people don't know what to do with their legs when they're talking," she says. "You don't want something like that having an impact."

To Carlin, the rules themselves are a thumbnail sketch of what past debates have taught.

In 1988, the first President Bush interrupted Dukakis so many times she had to invent a new category for her focus-group analysis; this year, President Bush and Kerry may not address each other, and can pose questions only rhetorically. In 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle and Al Gore squared off, there was so much unstructured time that the candidates ended up asking moderator Hal Bruno how to proceed; this year, time constraints are tighter (two minutes for answers, 90 seconds for rebuttals).

Bill Clinton impressed crowds, and debate scholars, by wandering the stage and engaging studio audiences, and in 2000, Gore surprised Bush and stunned observers by physically approaching his opponent. Bush handled it deftly, shooting Gore an incredulous look, but this year his team, and Kerry's, agreed to keep the candidates within "designated areas" behind their podiums.

"Maybe we should try those invisible electric dog fences," says Towson's Kumar.

And indeed, some of the rules seem arcane enough to be as loopy as one of Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks. But their sheer volume, like the best of humor, calls to mind something serious.

"What this shows is that both sides are being highly risk-averse," says Texas A&M's Ritter. "I'm not saying they don't have faith in their candidates, because I'm sure they do, but they want to limit the chances of anything going wrong. That might not make for the most free-wheeling debate, but it's a perfect reflection of where we are at this point in history.

"It's expected to be a close election, you know."

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