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Briefing and Opinion
October 8, 2004

Top 10 Debate Strategies
What helpful tips might presidential hopefuls glean from the performances of their predecessors? We turn to the scholars of the RHETORICAL STUDIES OF NATIONAL POLITICAL DEBATES, who offer insights on three decades of political debates.
Look marvelous
There was the visual contrast between the two men. Much has been made of that contrast. Kennedy was young, vigorous, and sharp, wearing a dark suit against a light background. Nixon was pale, shifty-eyed, slouching due to reinjuring his knee upon arrival at the debate, perspiring with his perpetual five o'clock shadow seeping through his Lazy Shave, and indistinct wearing a light-colored suit against a light background.

Source: RHETORICAL STUDIES OF NATIONAL POLITICAL DEBATES 1960-1992, edited by Robert V. Friedenberg of Miami University (of Ohio), Chapter 1, 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates by Theodore Otto Windt, Jr.
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Better safe than spontaneous
The managers of both candidates encourage their "players" to play it safe. Stick with the tried-and-true campaign positions. Memorize standard answer and one-line zingers likely to embarrass your opponent. Use the venerated political trick of responding to a question not with an answer but with a whole new attack. Worry not that such a tactic may make for boring television or may dismay your supporters. The lesser of two risks is the only road to follow when the entire campaign is at stake.

Source: RHETORICAL STUDIES OF NATIONAL POLITICAL DEBATES 1960-1992, edited by Robert V. Friedenberg of Miami University (of Ohio), Chapter 2, 1976 Carter-Ford Presidential Debates by Goodwin Berquist
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Ethos, ethos, ethos
What Americans feel confident in doing, what each of us does day-in and day-out, in both face-to-face and televised encounters, is to size up the quality of a stranger. Twenty-three centuries ago, Aristotle told his students that ethos was probably the most potent form of proof in persuasion. What he had in mind was the listener's collective perception of a speaker's character, intelligence, and good will. Cicero added to this philosophy in stressing the importance of prior reputation, the so-called antecedent of ethos of a speaker...

Thus, speaker image becomes central to the assessment of viewer response--so central in fact that one can say, and in 1976 should have said, the candidate image is the issue in the campaign, the one and only criterion every American voter feels qualified to apply.

Source: RHETORICAL STUDIES OF NATIONAL POLITICAL DEBATES 1960-1992, edited by Robert V. Friedenberg of Miami University (of Ohio), Chapter 2, 1976 Carter-Ford Presidential Debates by Goodwin Berquist