Debate tips from Karl Rove, earpiece not included

Karl Rove and I both used to work full-time in politics, but now we both mostly just write about it. Rove, however, has had far more success in all of his ventures, so when he shares his thoughts on how John McCain and Barack Obama should handle themselves during the debate on Friday — I listen.

Now, I realize some people may assume Rove’s “advice” to Obama is a bunch of Trojan Horse malarkey designed to throw the candidate off-track. Well, I’ve worked in politics enough to know that Obama’s campaign won’t change its strategy because of this article, and I’ve worked as a commentator long enough to know that writing something stupid hurts your credibility. More importantly, we former politicos like to look really smart, so you can generally assume that what we say reflects what we actually believe.

Rove opened his piece in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) by underlining the importance for both candidates to do well on Friday. Apparently, going all the way back to 1960, whoever the public perceived as the winner of the first debate averaged a 4.2 point net swing in the Gallup poll. That’s huge. That’s also why Rove questioned Obama’s insistence that the first debate cover foreign policy when he thinks McCain has such a strong advantage there.

I’d argue that Obama, not McCain, actually has the advantage on foreign policy. McCain reflects the failed strategy of the last eight years, while Obama opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and has argued all along that America needs to focus on Afghanistan. Obama also has the cooler head, and can make a stronger case that he, not McCain, would do more to restore America’s leadership in the world. Then again, I never won a presidential election with a candidate who couldn’t even pronounce the world nuclear, so Rove may have me on this one.

Even more critical than the topic of the debate is how the candidates present themselves. Every four years without fail we hear some talk about the Kennedy-Nixon debate. People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won and people who watched on TV thought Kennedy won. So while substance certainly matters, anyone who’s been in a relationship knows that the way things are said matters at least as much as what’s actually said.

Rove has some general tips for the candidates here, and gives what I think is the best advice of the entire piece: “Know what you want to achieve and have that narrative down cold, for yourself and for your opponent. How do you want potential defectors and converts to see and feel about you and your opponent when it’s over? How do you accentuate your strengths and his weaknesses?”

Don’t go in too hot, though, because “the counterpunch is better than the punch. The first person to attack generally suffers, especially if the attack comes across as exaggerated or unfair. Attack sparingly and then by inference and obliquely.”

Good advice. Rove also has specific comments for Obama and McCain about what each of them needs to accomplish:

Mr. McCain needs to come across as optimistic, loose and likable. He must guard against revealing his lack of respect for Mr. Obama. And he must grab the “change” banner from Mr. Obama by describing a few things he’ll do internationally that are new and different.

Mr. McCain should remind voters the surge in Iraq was the most vital decision in the War on Terror. Mr. Obama opposed it and even continued to oppose it after it was an undeniable success. And Mr. McCain should frame energy as a security issue with large implications for jobs and our economy.

Mr. Obama’s task is to look like a credible commander in chief. Right now, too many people lack confidence that he’s up to the most important of presidential responsibilities.

Mr. Obama must avoid the pervasive sense of nuance that weakened his performance at the Saddleback Forum. He should attack less. If Mr. McCain is condescending, Mr. Obama should call him on it. If Mr. McCain launches a full-out assault, Mr. Obama should rebut it. Otherwise, he should aim for firmness, seriousness of purpose and clarity in his views.

In criticizing President Bush’s foreign policy, Mr. Obama must be careful not to sound like he’s running down America. Breaking with someone in his party on a vital issue would show leadership and independence.

Mr. Obama has more recent debate experience, and he’s wise to have spent three days in Florida resting. Mr. McCain, by contrast, has campaigned with little rest and rehearsal. This is dangerous. Mood and countenance matter as much as command of issues.

A debate tie goes to the frontrunner. With that now being Mr. Obama by a slim margin, Mr. McCain must emerge the clear winner, or his prospects of being the next president will dim.

I just thought of this, but perhaps McCain retreated to Washington to give himself time to rest and recuperate before the big game. Perhaps the deadlock in Washington just provided the campaign with a convenient excuse to blow off the schedule and get in more prep time. On Tuesday the CNN Political Ticker called McCain’s prep “on the fly” and reported he hadn’t even included a stand-in for Obama yet. Maybe McCain’s aides saw something they didn’t like and freaked out?

Bottom line, tomorrow night’s debate (should it occur) could seriously change this race. Obama may emerge as a strong leader ready to take on the challenges we face, or he may come out looking like, uhh, Sarah Palin. McCain may emerge as the experienced steady hand America needs to guide us through these troubled waters, or he may emerge as an angry lunatic whose finger we don’t want anywhere near the nuclear trigger.

Yet both candidates are extraordinarily well prepared, well coached and, most importantly, looking to do no harm to themselves and their candidacy. I think in all likelihood both will come out about where they went in which, according to Rove, gives a slight advantage to Obama.

Then again one of them could say something incredibly stupid, like we’re headed toward another Great Depression or that maybe we should go to war with Russia — oh wait, that’s for next week’s debate.

As a side note, Bob Schieffer, the moderator of the third debate and anchor of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said of the debates, “It’s going to be like the Super Bowl or ‘American Idol,’ with a lot of people watching at the same time. And a lot of people are going to make up their minds then, too.” So could one of the networks set up a way for me to vote for the winner via text message? Srsly? THANK YOU!

Colorado Independent’s blogumnist (blogger-columnist) Jeff Bridges has worked in Democratic politics for the last 10 years, serving as communications director for two congressional races in Colorado and two governors races in the Deep South. Bridges also worked as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C., with a focus on military and small-business issues.

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