Style points at least as significant as substance

Images: Many viewers will pay as much attention to gestures and appearances as to policy statements.

Election 2004

September 30, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Though foreign policy and homeland security are the themes of tonight's presidential debate, the talk leading up to the event already has strayed to far less weighty matters.

Like smirking. And sweat.

Critics of President Bush are predicting an ill-timed Bush smirk or nervous lip biting at a tough question, while opponents of Democratic challenger John Kerry are noting his tendency to sweat - the candidate, after all, demonstrated during the Democratic National Convention that in the spotlight he can overheat to the point of heavy glistening. While some pre-emptively mock Kerry's debate appearance - vice presidential spouse Lynne Cheney, attempting to describe a shade of orange yesterday, reportedly used the phrase "John Kerry's suntan" - Bush watchers are wondering whether the president will commit any headline-grabbing malapropisms.

It's the images, not the policy exchanges, that often linger in the aftermath of a presidential debate. When the candidates face off at the University of Miami tonight in the first of three debates, some say they'll try to rack up at least as many points on style as substance.

Down to a science

The intense preparation for the debates, according to strategists who have worked on previous ones, has been distilled to a science. Bush and Kerry campaign advisers will know if the stage is illuminated with fluorescent or incandescent light (so the candidates' makeup can be adjusted accordingly). They will know the exact room temperature - agreed upon by both campaigns before the debate - and will make sure the air is temperature-tested. They will know that 90 minutes is a long time to stand, and they'll consider ploys to keep their candidates from seeming to fidget too much. (In the past, strategists have recommended wider-legged pants that hide jittering from the TV cameras.)

It's not to say that in a close race, the guy with the better pants wins. But some strategists say every little decision that goes into making a candidate look more natural helps.

"When literally 98 percent of the people watching have made up their minds and a small percentage of people who are watching have not, they're not listening for policy distinctions; they end up deciding on who they trust and who they like," says Sheila Tate, who has advised GOP presidential candidates including the first President Bush. "The people have to come across as genuine; if they walk out there looking different than they normally look, it's going to be a distraction, and it's going to be noticed."

Every nuance relating to the candidate, and the stage set, has been reviewed and analyzed. The reason, strategists say, is to project the most comfortable-looking candidate possible.

"You eliminate all the variables so the candidate knows where he's standing, how far he is to his opponent, how far he is from the edge of the stage - all that increases his comfort level," says Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's campaign against Bush in 2000.

When Gore tried something less natural and more theatrical - standing in Bush's space during one debate to emphasize a point - it backfired. "It came across like Gore was the aggressor, a hungry lion going to slay the little lamb," Brazile says. "Bush acted like, `What's your problem?' It didn't help us."

But a good debate performance doesn't just mean a perfectly natural one. Candidates also attempt to use the debate to compensate for what they're lacking. Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, could use this moment to soften his patrician Yankee edges by smiling and showing a lighter side, strategists say. The pressure in some ways is lighter on Bush because viewers have gotten used to his mannerisms, but analysts say he needs to avoid gaffes and defensiveness.

The campaigns have tried to control the look and feel of the debate in a 32-page contract negotiated by both sides - ground rules that prohibit props, for example, and bar the candidates from questioning each other directly. The contract does not allow the candidates to stray from their podiums the way Gore did four years ago. It also specifies that a coin toss decide which candidate gets to answer the first question and which candidate gets to choose stage positions first (to make sure his spot features his better side).

Height and hair

Political theories about appearance abound, including the one that holds that in the TV age, the taller candidate wins - and when they're roughly the same height, the one with more hair wins. Kerry has a 4-inch height advantage over Bush, though the podiums will be adjusted so that when the candidates are addressing the camera, they will appear the same height in relation to the lecterns. Both campaigns have asked for no reaction shots - angles that could directly compare Bush and Kerry's stature by showing them in the same frame - but the networks plan to ignore that request, calling it an attempt by the Bush and Kerry campaigns to control the images.

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