TRENTON, N.J. (MCT) — The New Jersey Democrat was playing the role of a Pennsylvania Republican, Rick Santorum, when he went for the jugular in a mock debate with Democrat Bob Casey in 2006.
“You know, let me tell you something, Bob,” Rep. Rob Andrews, D- N.J., remembers saying. “The only thing I’m grateful for you after I hear you misrepresent your record is that your father is not here to hear it.”
The issue was abortion. Andrews knew that both Casey and then-Sen. Santorum opposed abortion, and that the subject was sure to surface in the coming televised debate. In one zinger, Andrews invoked that hot-button issue and the memory of Casey’s father, the former Pennsylvania governor. “You could see the blood rising up his neck,” Andrews remembers.
But Casey kept his cool, pivoted to his message, and faced nothing as severe in the actual debate. Casey is now running for re-election as senator.
Whatever Americans hear Wednesday night in the first debate between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, it is likely the candidates have heard worse — and been attacked more aggressively — in practice debates staged by their campaigns.
It’s like putting the weighted “doughnut” on the bat in the on-deck circle, said Andrews, who is regularly deployed for these exercises. As a sparring partner, “you analyze what someone’s hot buttons are and you deliberately try to push those hot buttons and draw an emotional reaction.”
The South Jersey congressman is known for his ability to “internalize the opposition’s positions on issues and deliver better on-message answers than the real person,” said Joshua Henne, a Democratic political consultant who has witnessed Andrews’ mock debates.
Obama has been preparing via mock debates with 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who is playing the part of Romney. In a measure of the small world of debate prep, Andrews played Kerry in a 2004 prep session for then-contender Rep. Richard Gephardt.
Over at the Romney camp, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has been playing Obama.
Like the Olympic bobsled competition, the once-every-four-years event can be thrilling — or calamitous. It may do nothing to change Obama’s slight lead in the polls — or it may allow Romney to begin gaining ground with independent voters.
Debate prep, though, is a less partisan affair: Candidates’ answers may differ, but the advice from handlers is generally the same.
The first rule of answering a question is not to answer the question. Don’t flatly ignore it, of course. But pivot as deftly and quickly as possible to three or four things you really want to talk about.
“You’re trying to get (the candidate) to understand that fine balance between answering the question and using the question as an opportunity to give an answer,” said Tom Wilson, a former Republican Party chairman in New Jersey who has prepped several senatorial and gubernatorial candidates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Carl Golden, who prepared former New Jersey Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Todd Whitman for debates, said viewers should count how many times the candidates say something like: “Having said that ... “
That’s the phrase they use to change the subject.
Preparation may begin with a huge stack of briefing materials prepared by aides and read (or not) by the candidate. Those materials are whittled down to coherent arguments, often sound bites, that the candidate can use in the moment.
How can a candidate steer a discussion toward those talking points?
Take a question about clean water, Wilson says. The answer may be about clean water — “or can provide you an opportunity to talk about the need to balance responsible environmental policies with the need for economic development and growth.”
“It’s all the process of training and teaching to provide the answer, as opposed to answering the question,” Wilson said. “And then it’s repetition.”
Andrews said viewers can tell who is winning the debate by noting who offers fewer responses to attacks: “How many answers does the candidate give that’s mostly an answer to what the last guy said?”
In prep sessions, once a candidate gets comfortable spouting his or her own opinions, handlers begin the mock debates. Wilson said he starts off with softballs for comfort, then fastballs to elicit a reaction. Then come the curveballs, such as the question posed to Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988: If his wife had been raped and murdered, would he “favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
Mock debates are now taped — allowing the candidate and handlers to instantly review the performance and ensure, say, that there are no audible sighs (such as Al Gore emitted in his 2000 bout with George W. Bush).
“It’s just like prepping for trial,” says lawyer Patrick Murphy, the former Democratic congressman from Bucks County who ran for Pennsylvania attorney general in this year’s primary. “You have to anticipate what the other side’s argument is going to be. And you better know your facts. And the American people are the jury in this case.”
Murphy says he has debated more than 20 times in four campaigns. Early on in his very first debate, in 2006, a campaign operative for his opponent yelled something from the audience.
“Well,” Murphy remembers answering, “if you want to come up here and debate me, I’ll debate both of you at the same time.”
The crowd enjoyed it, and the moment became one of his favorite debating memories.
Jeffrey Green, a political-theory professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said he believes debates are less about persuading voters and more about “seeing candidates go through a difficult process and seeing which ones had the most composure and calm.”
If you can handle the klieg lights, tough questions, and partisan zingers, then maybe you can handle the 3 a.m. phone call from the Pentagon, the thinking goes.
Plus, it’s reality TV, says Green: “We as viewers seem to have an interest in watching ordinary people put on a public stage of stress and intensity.”
Nationally televised debates are relatively new. Only 10 presidential races have featured them. But they’ve become a vital part of the process.
“It’s exciting — and something that not all countries do,” Green said. “And it’s a badge of our freedom that we do it. It’s something to celebrate.”
(Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.)