Historian Imagines McCain-Obama Debate

Republican presidential nominee John McCain wants to meet his rival Barack Obama in a series of town-hall style debates. Debate historian Alan Schroeder talks with Andrea Seabrook about debate formats and the debaters themselves.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

So, it's down to this: Obama versus McCain. They've got five months to get your vote, and a key battleground is sure to be televised debates. The question is: what format? McCain proposed this past week that Obama join him for a series of town hall meetings across the country. Obama's campaign manager calls the idea appealing.

Alan Schroeder teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. He also wrote the book "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High Risk TV." He's at WGBH in Boston. How are you?

Professor ALAN SCHROEDER (Journalism, Northeastern University): Fine, thanks.

SEABROOK: Thanks for coming in. Alan Schroeder, what exactly is a town hall debate format?

Prof. SCHROEDER: It's a debate format in which the questions are asked by citizens; not by journalists or by people who normally do have these opportunities to interact with the candidates.

SEABROOK: So, why would John McCain seem to prefer that kind of setting?

Prof. SCHROEDER: Well, John McCain and his advisers feel that he's done particularly well in town hall meetings, and he's done a ton of these things over the course of the campaign. The difference, of course, with this would be that he's up there with his opponent, first of all, and second of all it would be televised before an audience of tens of millions of people.

So, there is a fairly significant qualitative difference between what he's already done and what he's proposing. But he does feel comfortable in a setting and that's why they want to push that.

SEABROOK: And how about for Barack Obama? Would he be wise to say, hey, sure, let's do it.

Prof. SCHROEDER: Barack Obama, by contrast, has not done quite as well in these town hall meetings. He tends to do better in a larger setting and in a more formal sort of atmosphere.

SEABROOK: Now, Alan Schroeder, you're an expert on presidential debates, and I want to get your sense of how these two candidates are as debaters or how they have been so far in the primary season. Are there particularly revealing moments that have struck you during the primary campaign?

Prof. SCHROEDER: Well, absolutely. I think one thing that was notable about John McCain is he does have a temper and he does have a tendency sometimes to let things that happen in the debates needle him and get under his skin. And there's a particular moment that I'm thinking of with Mitt Romney in one of the debates where they had a rather uncomfortable exchange.

SEABROOK: Let's play this. This is McCain speaking directly to Mitt Romney about his abortion stance.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, Presumed Presidential Nominee): I just wanted to say to Governor Romney we disagree on a lot of issues but I agree you are the candidate of change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Well, that comes off a little snarky, huh?

Prof. SCHROEDER: Absolutely. You saw a number of those occasions, especially for some reason with Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney seemed to particularly to get under John McCain's skin. But McCain has a reputation as being fairly thin-skinned and I think that's something that we'll be watching for with him.

SEABROOK: How about with Obama?

Prof. SCHROEDER: Obama is not a good natural debater although he did have some effective moments. But I think probably one of his most telling moments where he made a fairly condescending remark about the likeability of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

SEABROOK: And the question was about whether Hillary was likeable enough to get the nomination. Let's listen to that.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York, Former Presidential Candidate): I don't think I'm that bad.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presumptive Presidential Nominee): You're likeable enough, Hillary.

Sen. CLINTON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Ooh, it kind of has that backhanded kind of snide thing going on, huh, Alan Schroeder?

Prof. SCHROEDER: Well, absolutely. And I think one of the difficulties in a presidential debate is that there is a way to criticize your opponent but there's such a fine line there and it's very easy to cross that line. I think in that instance Barack Obama definitely went a little too far.

SEABROOK: So, if you were a consultant to these candidates, what would you tell them?

Prof. SCHROEDER: If I were consulting for the McCain campaign, I would really stress his sense of humor. I think that that's one of the assets that he has that he brings to the table. So, I think to stress that side of him - the more easygoing, the funny side and to maintain an even temper at all times.

With Barack Obama, I think what they probably will try to do is figure out a way for him to sort of rattle John McCain a little bit and hope that they can bring out that side of his temper that doesn't play very well. They may also practice a little bit on the one-on-one empathizing with members of the audience. That's something that Bill Clinton was really good at in this format when, you know, he would famously feel the pain of the person asking the question.

So, I think those are some of the things in each case that will need to be worked on.

SEABROOK: Alan Schroeder is the author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High Risk TV." Thanks so much for joining us.

Prof. SCHROEDER: Thank you.

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