Debate tips from Mike Murphy

With Palin's big debut two days away, the former McCain advisor talks debate preparation.

Published September 30, 2008 5:47PM (EDT)

Last week Salon published a pretty good round table on the subject of presidential debates that featured Democratic advisor Mark Fabiani, Republican consultant Russ Schriefer and the Atlantic's Jim Fallows.

In Time magazine this week, former John McCain advisor Mike Murphy offers his thoughts on how to have a successful debate performance. The most applicable part of Murphy's advice, especially as it might pertain to vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, may be this section:

A lot of debate prep is given over to mastering another basic rule: never make the rookie's mistake of actually trying to answer the question you are asked. Candidates are told instead to quickly "pivot" into their central campaign message whenever possible.

Question: "Governor, why is your hair on fire?"

Answer: "Nobody understands fire better than America's brave firefighters, which is why I'm so proud to say that the heroes who make up the National Firefighters Association took one look at my 11-point plan for comprehensive national health-care reform and strongly endorsed me as the only candidate in this race who is standing up for working, middle-class families who need health care now." Also, always keep talking until the moderator is forced to stop you with a foghorn blast or by reaching for an elephant gun under the desk. Airtime is gold.

Palin is going to be doing this a lot -- turning a question as quickly as possible onto the safe ground of a prepackaged answer. To be fair, she will hardly be the first or last candidate to do so.

But I wonder if the "airtime is gold" rule applies. The longer she is on-screen, the more she talks, the better it is for her? Maybe. Maybe not.

On a related note, Joe Biden might do himself a world of good by stopping at one point during the debate (but only once) to say he yields the balance of his response time on some question to Palin. The media would like nothing more than a sound bite in which Biden, who has a reputation for living by the the airtime-is-gold maxim, goes silent without prompting -- and in which Palin, perhaps caught off guard, has to think quickly on her feet to deliver a non-prepackaged answer.

Update: According to a new Marist poll, Americans are very curious about Thursday night's debate. Forty-five percent expect Biden to win; 36 percent, Palin. But be careful, Joe: By a whopping 65 percent to 23 percent margin, those surveyed think Palin will come across as more likable.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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