By now the plans are distilled, practice rounds completed, curveballs anticipated and (Lord help us) zingers rehearsed. In order to "win" tonight -- and on November 6th -- some debate dos and don'ts for President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.
DO play to win -- DON'T play not to lose. This is the time to be big, not to act small. You are running with a grand vision for the future, a complex plan to navigate domestic and international crises, and the fate of the free world on your shoulders. Conquer your fear of success and fear of failure before you get out there on stage. Defense annoys your fans and emboldens your opponents. If you are going to lose -- and one of you will -- take a stand for something big and make your case with all your heart.
DO appreciate that you must connect with the American people to win this election. Barack Obama is winning because he leads in the "cares about people like me" question -- and Mitt Romney has to cut into that lead. Candidates can win losing "right track/wrong track" or "cares about people like me" questions -- but not by losing both. That's why Romney wants to other Obama and bring down the empathic score. Knowing this, Obama need not help him by failing to connect tonight. Be authentic. Be vulnerable, DON'T be cute or funny -- DO be yourselves.
DO give an unscripted answer. You've both been running for president since 2006. We all know your six years of speeches and can tell if you're bringing us spontaneity or canned ham. Our debate drinking games are primed for your pre-programmed responses -- so do what you can to keep us sober by saying something new and interesting. Even with the career-defining questions released in advance (would that we lawyers could have had that on our Bar exam!) there will still be room for human moments. So listen to the question behind the question and answer from your heart not just your head.
DON'T fake emotion. Forget the "More in sorrow than in anger" trope -- sad people don't run for President of the United States. Own your ambition, say you know you can do a better job, and tell us what the job is. You're not sorry or sad that the other guy hasn't won this thing yet, so don't pretend otherwise. Who was the last sad politician you voted for? Exactly.
DON'T get mad. Romney already made this mistake once. When Mitt Romney laid a hand on Rick Perry during a 2011 CNN Republican presidential debate, many agreed that he had lost his cool and signaled a personal animosity that undermined the statesmanlike aura he was cultivating. Surely neither wants to invade personal space in word or deed this evening.
DO address the politics of politics. Allow yourselves to be vulnerable and, yes, political. Neither like to be asked about weaknesses -- who does -- or tell us you feel our pain (we know you're not Bill Clinton) -- but both have to show some soul and guard against thin skin. Neither wants to mug for the cameras, but you're going to have to open up lest you be perceived as arrogant. Neither wants to be seen as political -- but politics is the vocation you chose, so you will have to address the politics of power in order to answer just how you will achieve your vision and plan in a polarized society.
DO call BS on divisive questions that require false choices. If asked a divisive question, George Lakoff advises folks to say so. In my book, Campaign Boot Camp 2.0, Lakoff counseled: "Be ready for questions presupposing your opponent's frames," he warns. "Rather than answer a question such as 'When did you stop beating your wife?' call it out: 'That question is designed to be divisive.' Then, go on to make your point." We will, of course, be watching to see how Obama and Romney take the Lakoff approach and enlarge issues with a minimum of sighs, eyerolls and pursed lips.
DON'T whine. Same advice I give my toddler is apt for presidential debaters and their spin alley friends: whining isn't winning. I know the world is unfair and someone hurt your feelings and the media is biased against you and ... *sigh* *eyeroll* *pursed lips* ... just stop.
DO remember that 34 days from now, the winner will be elected your opponent's president. Scorched earth tonight means scorched earth in January. You must sow some seeds of agreement, if not for your opponent, than for his tens of millions of supporters, and for all Americans, so that we begin 2013 with at least some common ground.