UF experts weigh in on VP debate
Published: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 12:30 a.m.
From Richard Nixon's sickly appearance in 1960 to Al Gore's frequent sighs in 2000, a candidate's image has often been the story of political debates.
So University of Florida Speech and Debate Team coach Kellie Roberts said the 2008 vice presidential candidates need to be mindful about how they present themselves at tonight's debate.
"Certainly it's about the message, but it's the delivery that makes or breaks that message," she said.
Roberts, interim director of UF's Dial Center for Written and Oral Communication, said she'd advise Republican candidate Sarah Palin to be clear in her answers and not overly aggressive. She'd tell Democratic candidate Joe Biden to be polite, so he's not perceived as unfairly attacking Palin.
"Biden has to be very careful," she said. "He knows just about anything he says, someone is going to come after him for it."
Tonight's debate at Washington University in St. Louis is the only vice presidential debate of the campaign. Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama debated last week and meet for two more debates, Tuesday and Oct. 15.
Commentators noted that McCain looked away from Obama during the first debate. Roberts said it's a basic rule to make eye contact in debates, so she's unsure if McCain was making a mistake or tactical decision.
"If you planned it, certainly you're sending a couple of messages," she said. "One of them is complete disregard. The other is disrespect."
She'd advise McCain not to look as tense and fidgety as he appeared when he and Obama where shown in a split-screen. For Obama, she said he needs to pause and think for a moment before answering questions.
"He stumbles around an awful lot," she said.
Presidential debates tend to be more important than vice presidential debates, said Michael Heaney, an assistant professor of political science at UF.
As an example he cited the 1988 vice presidential debate, when Democrat Lloyd Bentsen used the famous, "You're no Jack Kennedy" line on Republican Dan Quayle.
"You can get solidly trounced in a vice presidential debate and still win the election," Heaney said.
But the Palin factor could make this debate a more significant and highly watched event, said Dan Smith, an associate professor of political science at UF. McCain has bet his candidacy on her, he said.
"John McCain had definitely put everything in with his vice presidential pick," he said.
He said Biden needs to make sure he doesn't appear sexist or patronizing. While Palin could benefit from expectations lowered by late-night jokes and her lack of major interviews, Smith said she must counter perceptions by being specific in her answers.
"She's the Jedi master of the non-answer," he said.
Heaney said Democrats could be underestimating Palin, much like they did with President Bush. While Palin's shaky interviews in recent weeks have raised questions about her debate performance, Heaney said he expects she'll do well.
"She appeals to ordinary people," he said.
He said Biden faces a difficult task. Palin can win simply by not messing up, he said, while Biden has to avoid a memorable mistake and appear not to attack her.
"There's almost no way for Biden to win this," he said.
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