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Jewish World Review April 30, 2003 / 28 Nisan, 5763

Roger Simon

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Let the political slaughter begin | The first Democratic presidential debate will take place in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday, and some people are already complaining it is way too early to pay attention to something as trivial as choosing a president.

Crowded fields cause the candidates to start early because they have to raise money, hire staff and sew up the support of party activists in a very competitive environment. To put it another way: If you snooze, you lose.

Besides, it's not that early.

Back in the 1988 campaign, there were seven Democrats running for president, and they first debated in Houston in July 1987, seven months before the first contest, the Iowa caucus.

This time there are nine Democrats and they are debating in early May, eight months before the Iowa caucus. So big deal.

If we don't see anything strange about playing baseball in the snow, why is it strange to have democracy in the spring?

The South Carolina debate is being hosted by ABC, with George Stephanopoulos doing the moderating. Stephanopoulos is talented and has spent a lifetime in politics, and while some say you can't have a coherent evening with nine candidates debating in 90 minutes (minus time for commercials), who says it has to be coherent?

Modern political campaigns are about theater, and debates have become mini-dramas -- rehearsed and choreographed -- and while the campaigns are pretending to be casual about this, they are taking it very, very seriously.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and many people will be seeing the Democratic field for the first time.

While nobody will be able watch the debate on live TV, some ABC affiliates will carry it after their local news on Saturday night. And on Sunday, C-SPAN will broadcast the entire debate four times.

Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton's press secretary and now a Washington communications consultant, was asked to help put the debate together due to the happy coincidence that the McCurry ancestral home is in Abbeville, S.C., and Mike's father, Joe, is on the executive committee of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

A number of TV outlets wanted to sponsor the debate, and McCurry evaluated each proposal. "The critical question was whether the format would put the potential nominees in a good, dignified light, have an opportunity for engagement and not be a food fight," he said.

But the TV outlets also wanted compelling television, and McCurry thought ABC's proposal was the best mixture: In the first block, Stephanopoulos will ask questions of the candidates, hitting on the major themes of the day -- war, peace, the economy, etc.

In the second -- and probably most exciting -- block, each candidate will get to ask one question of one of the other candidates of his or her choice.

"It will be interesting to see if they all gang up on Kerry," said McCurry, speaking of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, generally considered to be the early frontrunner.

The third block will be Stephanopoulos asking each candidate a question, to be followed by one-minute closing statements by each candidate.

McCurry worked for one of the greatest campaigners of all time, and I asked McCurry if any in the current Democratic field was as good as Clinton.

"One of them will be over time," McCurry said diplomatically, "and they all will get better as they go along. In early 1991, Clinton did not look like the world-class communicator he became. So don't look at the field in South Carolina and expect to see a completely polished presidential nominee. It would be better to look at them and see who has the most potential."

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate