Republican Debate Prep 101
About twenty years ago, while working as the broadcast producer at an ad agency, I volunteered to do the media for a Republican candidate in a race a Republican had not won in anyone's memory. My candidate lost by a hair, but the experience was seductive.
In the years since, here in the heart of red-state America, I have maintained a dilettantish sideline in political media -- writing, producing, coaching, and, most seductively, doing debate prep for candidates from state rep to U.S. Senate.
Those of us in the heartland, I am convinced, have a better instinct for what wins the votes of real Republicans than do Beltway pros, especially the sort -- and they are legion -- who convinced themselves that Sarah Palin cost John McCain the 2008 election. If media consultants had licenses, those who even entertained that idea should have to lose theirs.
What I have learned in working Republican debates are some tactical guides that might best be summarized in the acronym CLAPS (or, for the more aggressive candidate, SCALP). The C comes first. The candidate should, above all, voice conservative values consistently and coherently. That is lots of Cs, actually, but all are important.
The L and the A may seem superficial, but they are essential nonetheless. The candidate should be likeable and attractive. These are especially important variables in a televised debate, where, as the Nixon-Kennedy debates first proved, medium often trumps message.
The P stands for "positive" and the S for "smart." Although nature dictates some distinctions, especially in the S and A categories, there is much candidates can do to improve their chances.
If it were not for the C factor, this would already be a two-man race, but it is not. In their respective careers, both former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and current Texas governor Rick Perry have taken any number of positions that cause conservatives to doubt their sincerity. As perceived frontrunners, they have also been the most vulnerable to attack.
In entering a debate, all candidates, and frontrunners in particular, should have a well-prepared offensive strategy in the form of a positive and coherent statement of philosophy. This Romney has voiced well and often. Said he almost casually at the FOX News debate in response to a question on whether Barack Obama was a socialist:
I believe in America. I believe in the opportunity and in the freedom that is American opportunity and freedom. I believe in free enterprise and capitalism. I believe government is too big. It's gone from 27 percent of our economy in the years of JFK to 37 percent of our economy. We have to rein in the scale of government or we're not going to be -- continue to be a free economy.
Even more importantly than an offense is a defensive strategy to cauterize wounds quickly. On defense, too, Romney has been much more nimble than Perry. In the CNN New Hampshire debate, the host, John King, asked whether the characterization of Romney's Massachusetts health plan as "Obamneycare" was fair.
Listening to the question (always important!), Romney took the unwitting lifeline that King had thrown him in the word "Obamneycare" and yanked on it.
"First, if I'm elected president," said Romney, "I will repeal Obamacare." After blasting Obamacare, Romney justified his own plan under the conservative premise of it being a "state solution," and one that people can change if they don't like it.
When confronted with a comparable liability in the FOX News debate -- namely, his support for in-state tuition for children of illegal aliens -- Perry famously defended it with a liberal premise. "But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own," said Perry, "I don't think you have a heart."
An answer this tone-deaf raises the troubling question of just who is advising Perry. Did those advisers not know how this would sound, or did they simply not help prepare Perry on so critical a question? No likely answer reassures.
Where both Perry and Romney went wrong was in debating each other. With eight or nine people on the stage, a one-on-one pulls both candidates down. It also renders each of the two less likeable than they might otherwise appear. This was especially problematic for Perry in that Romney got the better of him in the FOX News debate, a setback that only reinforced doubts about Perry's smarts.
In the CNN debate, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann likewise erred in attacking Perry, then the perceived frontrunner. "I'm a mom of three children," said Bachmann. "And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong."
With the economy staggering and world peace in peril, Bachmann's concern about 12-year-old girls in Texas seemed too parochial and borderline liberal. Her defense of her position going forward raised questions, fairly or not, about her intelligence by a media all too eager to undermine conservative women. As a member of Congress and as a woman, Bachmann needed to add a little gravy on to the gravitas. Gardasil was not her ticket.
In the FOX News debate, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a generally likeable and consistent conservative, spent considerable energy attacking Perry on border issues. Although his points were well enough made, they detracted from his likeability. As an outlier, he has to use his time to establish who he is, not who Perry is or is not.
At the MSNBC debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich handled the effort by the media to provoke internecine feuding so well that his response became a YouTube sensation:
I for one...and I hope all my friends up here...are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated. And all of us are committed as a team: whoever the nominee is, we are all for defeating Barack Obama.
Perry and Romney should have learned from Gingrich. The real winner of the debate is the one whose sound bite goes positively viral. Gingrich's performance as "Captain of Team Republican" has enhanced his stature almost enough to elevate him, despite his historic baggage, to first tier. He is the kind of candidate who could win a brokered convention.
The real winner in the Perry-Romney smack-down, of course, was businessman Herman Cain, who remained positive, coherent, smart, likeable, and above the fray. He will, however, have to toughen up once he starts getting attacked and cauterize his own wounds. Word to my fellow Boilermaker: don't let anyone goad you into implying that your opponents are "insensitive" on the issue of race. We have been scolded enough.
On the attractive part, a candidate can do only so much. But when, say, Ron Paul scrunches his face in dismay, he subtracts from what God gave him. In general, Paul has performed with an admirable indifference to the outcome. Although my favorite congressman, he has worked hard to appear unattractive, unlikeable, and less coherent than he actually is. In a word, he has shown himself un-presidential.
Romney and Perry have the advantage of looking more like a president than actors who play presidents. Romney, in particular, has enhanced his likeability advantage by maintaining a strikingly sunny demeanor when he is not speaking -- more easily said than done.
In what I believe is an historically strong field -- don't let the media convince you otherwise -- Romney has performed most ably so far, even under fire. That is not to say that he is the best candidate, but rather that he is best prepared debater. If someone is to beat him -- and at least four others are still capable -- that someone will have to work harder and smarter. Romney is not likely to beat himself.