THE BLOG
09/26/2012 10:06 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Why Debates Decide the Next President

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(Photo by GQ)

By Robert Draper, GQ

Hundreds of millions of dollars, countless hours on the trail -- it all comes down to this. For three debates, 270 combined minutes, the candidates will actually talk to each other. One botched response, a roll of the eyes, or -- heaven forbid -- a truly revealing moment will mean the difference between winning and, well, being John McCain. In GQ's October issue, Robert Draper goes behind the scenes, talks to an army of strategists, and reveals the dark-arts trickery and clever gamesmanship that could ultimately determine the next leader of the free world. Read an excerpt:

Edwards had been performing surprisingly well in the 2007 primary debates, while Obama's disinterest showed. His answers were discursive, instantly forgettable. "It was almost as if he thought the debates didn't matter," recalls Edwards strategist Joe Trippi. But as Trippi well knew, his guy needed a tag-team partner to take down Hillary. "We would game things out: 'If you do this and Barack does that, wow, that'll really move the needle against Clinton,' " he says. "And Edwards would do it, and then it would be like, 'Wow, why didn't Obama see the opportunity?' Edwards had to do all the heavy lifting."

And so it went during the early stages of the Philadelphia debate. Clinton gave her crisp answers, Edwards responded with sharp jabs, and Obama shadowboxed around the periphery. During the first commercial break, the candidates went backstage to huddle with their gurus. Obama ran into Edwards and, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation, complimented his relentless attack on Clinton. But Edwards wasn't in the mood for flattery.

"Focus, Barack," he snapped. "You've got to focus!"

Obama returned to the stage a different debater. He immediately raised his hand the next time Clinton spoke and laid into her -- concluding by saying, "Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that's a fight they're very comfortable having. It is the fight that we've been through since the '90s. And part of the job of the next president is to break the gridlock and to get Democrats and independents and Republicans to start working together to solve these big problems, like health care or climate change or energy. And what we don't need is another eight years of bickering. And that's precisely why I'm running for president."

Read the rest of this story on GQ.com: They Retort, You Decide

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