The first step of preparing for a debate is anticipating the questions. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was sure he would be asked about his recent interview with Playboy. "I was prepared for the question," he said in an interview with Jim Lehrer. "I thought the best way to handle it was to say well, I'm sorry that the interview came out, but I couldn't deny that the answers in Playboy were my own answers." By being ready for the question, President Carter was able to use the debate to put a very troubling issue behind him.
George Bush's team tried to predict the types of questions each journalist would ask. "Now this guy, you got Bernie Shaw on the panel and here's what he's probably gonna ask you. You got Leslie Stahl over here and she's known to go for this and that," President Bush told Jim Lehrer. His prepping team then crafted the right answer that would satisfy the specific questioner.
After deciding which issues to focus on, staff members at the campaigns prepared briefing materials that were thoroughly reviewed by the candidates. This gave them the facts to draw from during the debates and helped them formulate succinct statements expressing their views.
President Ford said the briefings were extremely useful. "My staff put together two or three volumes of possible questions and suggested responses. I spent several days, if not more, going through the several volumes that they had arranged, and then we would have sort of preparatory debates where members of my staff would ask me questions and I would respond. That kind of preparation was very helpful, very valuable in anticipating what the various panel members would ask during the debates," he told Jim Lehrer.
But candidates did run into trouble by preparing too much. Many people thought President Ronald Reagan was tired and "out of it" during his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. But according to Reagan, he was over-trained. "I just had more facts and figures poured at me for weeks than anyone could possibly sort out and use, and I call it overtraining. When I got there, I realized that I wracking my brain so much for facts and figures on whatever subject we were talking about, that I knew I didn't do well." Reagan was much more relaxed and persuasive in the second debate and he credits his performance to less training.
Sometimes the preparation did not have the desired effect. Dole's statement in the 1976 vice presidential debate that characterized all twentieth century wars as Democratic wars was derived from material in his briefing books. "I had a stack of briefing notes about two feet high, which I think is the greatest about the debates is preparation because you have a chance to review everything and it really keeps you going in on the campaign. But, you know, that was in the briefing book, which I received from the Ford people, the national committee, and I guess I should have exercised my own judgment."
Practice debates are also a key part of debate planning for most candidates. These sessions were often taped and then critiqued by the candidates and their staffs. This allowed candidates to become more comfortable with the debate format so that they could better control how they were perceived by voters.
In 1984, Mondale and his debate advisor, Mike Soveran, the president of Columbia University practiced for days. Soveran played Reagan and they had a fake news panel. They set up lecterns in Mondale's home. "We had a video tape as we'd look at things, and we mapped out a strategy for what approach I wanted to take, what questions are liable to come up and so on," he told Jim Lehrer. They also watched tapes of past debates.
To prepare to debate Senator Dole in 1996, President Clinton went up to Chitoqua, New York with former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. "Mitchell was ruthless. I mean, the first time - the first debate we had in the preparation session he just killed me. You know, I walked in there; he had been preparing for weeks. He'd really done his homework, and I just kind of read the book in a cursory way, and he literally beat my brains out. I mean, it was - it was ruthless. They should have called it TKO before it was over and - so, we practiced and practiced and practiced, and I was - you know - ready to do whatever," he told Jim Lehrer.
Vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro found the whole process tiring. "If you ask me a question, don't tell me what the question is in advance, cause I'd rather not know. I'd rather give you a spontaneous direct response to it. I also lose interest if I have to go over and over and over again because it looks to me if you're practicing it becomes artificial. So I just find the whole process very tedious," she said.
In the end, most of the candidates studied and practiced. But often, it's the unexpected moments of the debate that will live on in the memories of the participants and the American public.
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