01/28/2009 04:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Debate Preview: Which Obama Will Show Up?

Now that we know John McCain will show up tonight, the question is: Which Barack Obama will show up tonight?

When Obama and McCain sat down with pastor Rick Warren for their first pseudo-debate, Obama was calm, thoughtful. He took care choosing his words, often peppering his sentences with "uh"s and "y'know"s (Obama pronounces "y'know" as "y'oh") while he found just the right one. Though the questions dealt with the most profound issues - life and death and families and evil - Obama showed little emotion in his voice, and even less on his face. His attitude seemed to be that he was there to give us some insight into his carefully considered thought process.

He got his butt kicked.

Last week, as the financial turmoil unfolded, as Obama spoke before large crowds in battleground states, he found his voice. He indicted McCain and the fat cats that run his party for gambling away America's financial strength. He frowned, he gestured widely and boomed out "I have a message for John McCain..." He gestured like he was sprinkling seeds to illustrate the GOP's laughable "trickle-down" philosophy. Then he smiled and chuckled and made a crack about the old boys' network being a McCain staff meeting. He was strong, he was fun, he was emotionally engaged and accessible.

He was the guy we have been waiting for.

I've spent the past few months coaching Democrats on public speaking and preparing them for debates. The biggest challenge most democrats have to overcome is their burning desire to discuss the issues in lots of intricate detail. At first glance, that might seem like a reasonable thing to do in a debate. But people do not vote for and against issue positions, they vote for and against candidates - people, not policies. The voters who are still persuadable at this stage in a campaign are not big on policy, or they'd have made up their minds by now. They are choosing between these two people based on how they feel about them. They size up each candidate's character to get a sense of which one is likely to do a better job. What sways their decisions is the emotion that each candidate shows in his words, voice and visuals. They want to know: Does this candidate understand where I am coming from? Are they strong enough to get the job done? Are they warm enough that I can relate to them, and feel confident they'll look out for me?

Fighting on that emotional terrain, attitude is everything. The most important preparation to walk out on that stage is not to memorize the briefing books, or even a few snappy lines (though having the right words at the ready definitely helps). The critical thing is to get into the right mood and the right frame of mind: relaxed and happy to be there, full of confidence to laugh off a silly attack or stand up to a serious one, looking forward to the opportunity to reach out and connect emotionally with the voters. Do that, and voters see a leader they can believe in, strong and warm, in charge and on their side. If Obama will do that, we'll win.

Think of the best moments in debates past: "You're no Jack Kennedy." "There you go again..." "I'm your girl!" Yes, smart policy is necessary for good government - as we've seen all too painfully lately - but smart policy is not what wins debates, or elections. Would that it were not so, of course, but we do ourselves no favors pretending otherwise.

As Democrats, we will probably always look forward to debates as a chance to explain our ideas to the American people and make our adversaries answer for the shortcomings of theirs. But that's usually our downfall. Because when we treat a debate as a chance to show the public how much smarter we are than the other guys, we lose. That is the common thread running through the candidacies of Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and, too often, Barack Obama too. For the sake of... well, of pretty much everything at this point... let's hope Obama breaks that thread tonight.