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Jewish World Review Sept. 29 , 2000 / 29 Elul, 5760

Roger Simon

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The power to bolster or destroy -- THOUGH most presidential debates turn out to be a draw, the power of debates to bolster or destroy lies in the huge audiences they attract.

About 25 million Americans watched Al Gore and George Bush give their acceptance speeches at the political conventions this year.

About 12 million people watched each of them on "Oprah."

But the presidential debates average about 64 million viewers, which is about 12 million more than watched the last episode of "Survivor."

True, some 88 million people watched the Superbowl this year, but the last presidential debate in 1992 drew an audience of 97 million, just 4 million shy of the most-watched show in TV history: the last episdoe of M*A*S*H.

So lot of of eyeballs will be glued to a lot of screens to watch politics, and they are to some degree captive. Because most of the networks have agreed to carry the debates live -- it's called a "roadblock" -- unless you have cable, you don't have much choice about what to watch. And if modern political campaigns are about selling -- selling programs, policies, personalities -- then debates provide a huge number of consumers who are looking to buy.

But modern political campaigns are also about theater, and that's where debates get tricky. Debates have become mini-dramas -- rehearsed, choreographed and full of trap doors hidden beneath the stage.

George W. Bush worries about that. "They got into the theatrics of the race," Bush told me last week, speaking of the Clinton/Gore tactics in the debates of 1996.

"One of the things that I hope we're able to do (this year) is to convince people that debates are important formats and forums to exchange ideas, not practice theatrics."

He shouldn't count on it.

Michael Sheehan is the debate wizard who prepped Clinton in 1996 and helped prepare Gore for his announcement speech this year.

"In all debates, there is a witching hour that comes 60 to 70 minutes into the debate," Sheehan says. "Every stupid mistake comes then. The Jack Kennedy line (in the Lloyd Bentsen vs. Dan Quayle debate) came at 61 minutes. Ford's line about communist domination (in the Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter debate), the same thing. It's the clubhouse turn where the horse falls." So the Gore team this year held out for 90-minute debates and got them. The team figures that before 90 minutes is over, Bush may be tired, edgy and feeling the pressure.

"Bush has got to hit some pretty dramatic doubles, triples and home runs," said Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley. "Singles won't do it for him. The debates give Bush the opportunity to hit a homer, but that is a lot of pressure."

Opening night this year comes on Oct. 3 in Boston, where Gore and Bush will stand behind lecterns to debate. The Bush campaign did not want this format, both because they feel Bush does better in less formal settings and also because he is shorter than Gore by about three inches.

The second debate will be in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Oct. 11 where the two will sit down behind desks in a talk-show style format, which the Bush campaign feels is Bush's strength.

The last debate will be Oct. 17 in St. Louis in a town meeting format with the audience asking pre-screened questions. Jim Lehrer of PBS will moderate all three. (Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney will sit behind tables at their single debate in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 5, with CNN's Bernard Shaw moderating.)

This year a new wrinkle has been added to make the debates even more exciting and combative: The candidates will be allowed more time to address each other directly.

"The clash of ideas can serve to give the American people a way to get a better grip on exactly what the candidates are proposing and exactly how it relates to the American people," Gore said.

His use of the word "clash" is probably not accidental. Gore is expecting rough and tumble debates.

"Bush has to take it to Gore; he has to go at him," a Gore aide said. "If he is nice and Gore is nice, that doesn't help Bush. When Bush was (way) ahead in the polls, his people felt all he had to do was survive the debates. Now, Bush has to go out and try to win them."

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