Written by Dominic Dezzutti

As the city of Denver gets ready to host the first Presidential debate of the season, it’s finally time to pop the popcorn, find a comfy seat on the couch and enjoy well rehearsed answers about U.S. tax policy.

And like any big event on American television, the pre-game coverage is almost as important as the game itself. So, in an effort to get you ready, here are my top three things to look for so that you can get the most out of the big debate.

A. The Memorable Line – Most debates are filled with important information that is quickly forgotten by the audience. However, if either candidate gets in one good, memorable shot, it may make an indelible memory on the electorate. In last Sunday’s Denver Post, my friend Eric Sondermann reminded all of us of Ronald Reagan’s big line from his debate with Jimmy Carter, “There you go again.” That line helped Reagan to turn Carter into a one term president. Few people remember who Michael Dukakis was, let alone his running mate Lloyd Bentsen. But many people remember the line he delivered to Dan Quayle, “I knew John F. Kennedy and you are no Jack Kennedy.” Not all debates have a memorable line, but if one is scored, it will have a greater impact than any strong line of argumentation ever could.

B. The General Mood – Beyond a memorable line, another aspect of debates that is remembered more than the content is the general mood of the candidates. Are they nervous, cocky, whiny, or bored? Those attitudes go a long way to influence voters who have yet to make a firm connection with a candidate. Voters remembered Al Gore’s sighs so much after his first debate with George W. Bush that he had to work twice as hard on his attitude for the next debate than he ever had to work on stances on policy. We may want to think that voters are looking for well-thought out answers that explain complicated policies, but the reality is that voters are simply trying to figure out which candidate seemed like the better guy, based on very simple standards.

C. The Gaffe – Every debate offers many opportunities to score points against your opponent. But just like any game, it also offers many opportunities to injure yourself. These self inflicted wounds are not as common as memorable lines or problematic moods, but they are far more devastating. Both candidates have been preparing for this debate, memorizing facts and analyzing their opponent. But I assure you that most of the stress they are feeling is the fear that one misplaced phrase or utterance turns into the moment that destroys the campaign. Not knowing the right answer on a question could make them look bad, but committing the awful gaffe could bring ruination.

If the debates are going to matter to voters, they will matter because of how they make voters feel about a candidate afterwards. That feeling is not going to come from which federal department they will vow to make more efficient or which jobs plan they vow to implement in 2013. It will come from what memory they leave voters with afterwards.

A ninety minute debate will come down to just a few moments. That’s what makes it so fun.

About The Blogger

– Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti also produces the Emmy winning Colorado Inside Out, hosted by Raj Chohan, on Colorado Public Television.


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