Thursday night's a biggie. There's a decent chance Biden and Palin will get bigger viewer numbers than the Presidential top dogs did last Friday. This is high drama. The country's in the economic toilet, we're fighting two wars, our political leadership is limp and within five weeks we elect either a 72-year-old Mr. Magoo with erratic behavior, or a 47-year-old, untested, freshman Senator with a strange name to lead us out of all this. What a pickle!
Then there's the Vice Presidential choices in this momentous election -- a loquacious Senator with an earnest foot-in-mouth condition who has, not one, but two failed presidential campaigns in his lost column, and a former beauty pageant runner-up, Mayor of Tiny-Town, and freshman Alaska Governor whose recent uncomfortable TV interview had viewers saying 'Thanks, but no thanks' to her as Vice Presidential material.
So the drama is very high for this debate - not because it will decide the fate of the election - but because it's what Reality-TV is supposed to be -- real. Palin is "American Idol's" Sanjaya, popular with many but with questionable prime-time talent. Will she tank before our very eyes? Will she hold her own against a formidable veteran debater like Biden? Will she do a 'Rocky' and come out the scrappy winner against all odds? She's going into this debate as underdog with many fans routing for her and many people terrified at the prospect of her success. This is why we watch.
As you read this, both candidates are holding intense prep sessions with seasoned advisors. They're working in their respective campaign bubbles which can be quite limited in perspective. Therefore, as a public service to both campaigns, permit an outsider, a veteran media trainer and coach to offer a few suggestions to each candidate in advance of this debate.
You've got only two key messages to get across:
1) You and Sen. McCain are the mavericks, the reformers who will clean up Washington's mess.
2) The other guy is scary.
• Your best defense is offense. No matter what the 'gotcha' question may be, your job is to give the talking point you've been working on, then turn it back to a criticism of '....the most liberal guy in the Senate.......who doesn't seem to understand how the real world works.'
• Beware the Ronald Reagan over-prepped syndrome. (first Reagan/Mondale debate) Too many advisors cramming your head with facts and numbers can be counter-productive. This is not a test of your knowledge of domestic and world affairs. Whether you know the right answer, or not, this is about how you handle yourself under pressure.
• You do have to respond to a fairly predictable bucket of issues in 90 minutes - financial melt-down, the war on terror, taxes, energy dependence, America's role in the world, etc. That's the purpose of all the prep you're getting. You will need one good talking point for each of these issue buckets. No matter how the question is asked, your job is to give the best response you can, then pivot back to these bucket talking points, the ones you're cramming with now. Example....
Q/ Governor, Sen. McCain repeatedly said the fundamentals of our economy are strong. Was that a mistake?
A/ Gwen, Sen. McCain was absolutely right about our American workers being fundamentally sound and productive. PIVOT TO.....The real issue is what we're going to do about this problem. We need to seriously reform greedy Wall Street, the special interests and unscrupulous lobbyists. Sen. McCain and I have a proven track record of reform and.......... (AND YOU'RE BACK ON MESSAGE. EXPAND OR CONTRACT EACH TALKING POINT AS NEEDED)
• Energy. You've got that huge pipeline running through your state. Make sure you do your energy riff.
• When advisors tell you to 'just be yourself,' they really don't mean that. Which self are they talking about? If you brought in your Katie Couric interview self that would be wrong. The self for this debate is the poised, confident and comfortable self people saw with your convention speech.
• Finally, remember your early TV sportscaster training back in Alaska. It not so much what you say, but how you say it. So, land sakes alive, keep dropping your 'g's at the end of words, no matter what your advisors may say. It's part of what makes you just-folks.
Your 'CHANGE' message hasn't changed. Obama and you are the necessary change after eight years of Republican failure and four more years of the same from McBush, yada, yada, yada. Hammer that.
- Your second key message is McCain's erratic behavior and inconsistencies compared with Obama's calm, cool and collected leadership style. Yes, you've known McCain for many years but he's just wrong, wrong, wrong.
- Do not, under any circumstances, go after Palin directly. No 'Bridge to nowhere,' no 'I can see Russia' stuff. This debate is about McBush, not her.
- Beware of any whiff of condescension seeping out of you towards her. No disapproving faces or rolling eyes. However, if she gives an obvious incorrect fact, don't hesitate to tag her with it. You can say something like, "....I don't know what they're telling you, Governor, but......" The trick is to keep your tone empathetic, not judgmental.
- Pin her down for specific examples of McCain's positions. She seems to have difficulty with concrete examples.
- Make her defend McCain's record where he has done 180s on issues, like Wall Street regulation, the Bush tax cuts, etc.
- Remind the audience about your regular guy roots, how you used to drive home to Delaware every night to be with your kids when they were young.
- Finally, do not utter the tired, old Senatorial phrase 'with respect to....' Remember, you are CHANGE.' Be the CHANGE.
Hope this helps, candidates. We'll all be watching. Best of luck tomorrow night.