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The Debates
Susan Estrich
Monday, Sept. 27, 2004
So now it comes down to the debates - or more particularly, to the moments that will define the debates.

"I knew John Kennedy," Lloyd Bentsen famously said. Three days earlier, in rehearsal, he had been shocked when the Dan Quayle stand-in compared himself to Jack Kennedy. Does he really do that, Bentsen asked at the time. He did. Can I say something, Bentsen, ever the gentleman, asked us. We nodded enthusiastically. So as we sat backstage, and heard Quayle compare himself to Kennedy, I turned to the key supporters gathered in the holding room and said, "Here it comes." And it did.

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Sometimes it works that way. "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" asked Ronald Reagan in 1980. It was over for Carter with that one. Four years later, it was over for Mondale when Reagan joked that he wouldn't make an issue of his opponent's youth and inexperience, turning the age issue around with a single quip. Were these lines prepared in advance, practiced, rehearsed? You bet. But they still have to come out right, at the right time, in the right context, which is harder than it looks. Believe me.

In 1988, we knew there had to be a Willie Horton/passion/crime question. Had to be. And if there wasn't, we had to turn a question into that. Michael Dukakis desperately needed a chance to prove that he understood what it was like to be a victim of crime - that he was not just a card-carrying member of the ACLU, but also committed to fighting crime; that he didn't just read books about Swedish land use, but also cared deeply about people; that he had passion; and that he was actually sorry about what had happened to the woman Willie Horton raped.

Bill Clinton and I had rehearsed the answer about a hundred times for Dukakis - indeed, it was a version of the paragraph I had tried (and failed) to get into his acceptance speech, all about his brother being killed by a hit-and-run driver, his father robbed and beaten in his medical office in his 70s by someone looking for drugs. "I know what it's like to be a victim of violent crime," he was supposed to say. "I understand the anger, and the fear, and the rage, and what crime costs us as a society, and that's why I cut crime, etc."

You should've heard Bill Clinton do it. Practically brought tears to your eyes. But you never heard Dukakis do it, because he didn't hear the question, even though it was the first one out of the box from Bernard Shaw: "If someone raped and killed your wife ..." Shaw asked. I held my breath. Dukakis explained his position on the death penalty. Wrong answer. When I walked backstage after the debate, he looked at me sadly and said he was sorry. I didn't realize it was that question, he said. I tried to comfort him. What could I say?

Debates are like that. Ninety minutes comes down to 90 seconds. For most of it, you get the stump speech, the pat answers, the stuff the regulars have heard a hundred times. What you're looking for is the 90 seconds that will itself be replayed a hundred times, the moment that both campaigns are trying to script now, the stunt they're trying to invent that will define the night, and the campaign.

You know Kerry will have a hundred and one stories of real people whose lives have been affected by Bush's failed policies. Expect to see them in the audience, along with Bush's soldiers and veterans, and the swift boat crowd.

You know there will be a question to Kerry about being a flip-flopper, and to Bush about whether he can think of any mistakes he's made. You can bet there'll be some kind of question to Kerry about Teresa, and to Bush about Cheney. You know Kerry will be ready on Vietnam, and Bush on the National Guard. You know Bush will be asked about major changes in his second term, and you can be pretty sure Kerry will be asked about his legislative record (why no major accomplishments, he'll be asked, to which he will disagree), and about where he disagrees with Ted Kennedy.

You know both candidates will be aggressive, having been told by their staffs that in this business the aggressive candidate is generally considered the winner. And when it's over? Both sides will claim they won, and most people will think their candidates won.

The real question is: Will there be a moment that anyone will remember. Or as Fritz Mondale once said to Gary Hart in a debate (after his staff explained the Wendy's commercial for him, which he'd never seen himself): "Where's the beef?"

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