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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When President Obama and Mitt Romney take to the stage at the University of Denver this week, their campaign advisers and debate coaches want everything to feel familiar. The stage lighting, the audience, the room temperature, and most importantly, their opponent. Both men have spent weeks preparing for the debates by facing off against fake versions of their challengers, played by stand-ins. And even though it's easily overlooked, the work of a debate stand-in itself is grueling. Just ask Judd Gregg. The former senator from New Hampshire played Al Gore in debate prep for George W Bush in the 2000 election.

JUDD GREGG: It's an incredibly intense undertaking. I spent literally 100s of hours working on trying to learn what Al Gore would say and what he had said.

MARTIN: His counterpart that year was Democratic strategist Paul Begala. He was playing George W Bush during Al Gore's debate prep.

PAUL BEGALA: It was a multi-week commitment, where it's pretty much the biggest thing I did.

MARTIN: Begala and Gregg started reading, listening and watching as much as they could about the men they would pretend to be on stage.

GREGG: To the point where my wife no longer wanted to turn on the car radio. I had so many tapes of Al Gore in it; or turn on TV, I had so many VCRs - back then it was VCRs - of Al Gore.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It probably felt like you were living with him in some kind of way?

GREGG: She seemed to feel that way and I did too.

MARTIN: And there were times when all that research and preparation paid off. Again, Judd Gregg.

GREGG: We had concluded that Al Gore, because of his physical size and because it was his character to try to intimidate people, would at some point try to walk into the then-governor's space and basically stand beside him and intimidate him. And so we practiced that. I would walk right up to the governor. The first time I did it, the governor did exactly what he did when Al Gore did it to him in the third debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE REHEARSAL)

GREGG: ...on issues, but can you get things done?

He looked at me and smiled.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE REHEARSAL)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: And I believe I can.

GREGG: In a sort of relaxed way, went on with his answer. I happened to think that was one of the turning points in the election and it was interesting it happened exactly as we had scripted it.

MARTIN: But you can only script so much. Paul Begala says this was true of Al Gore's performance.

BEGALA: What the press later focused on was the vice president's breathing patterns. Right - he signed a lot, especially in the first debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

BUSH: ...taxes. That's what a governor gets to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGHING)

BEGALA: Because he really was appalled at the notion that this guy was one step away from the White House. That was the sense I got.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

BUSH: There's differences...

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGHING)

MARTIN: And was that breathing tick something you had noticed in the prep?

BEGALA: No, no. I wish I could tell you I had, and I don't think any of his aides or staffers did.

MARTIN: Begala and Gregg have played the game of politics for a long time. They both said, often, debates are won or lost in the prep.

GREGG: Well, I think it comes down to the candidate making a connection with the audience in a comfortable way that gives the audience two reactions. One, that they like the person, and two, that they see the person as a leader. To do that, you have to have spent a lot of time preparing because you don't get that off the cuff, you have to actually practice it. You know, they used to say that Winston Churchill would practice his one-liners. And if you do that, then I think you can very effectively present yourself in a debate.

MARTIN: That's Former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, a debate stand-in for John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 1996 and 2000. And Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist who stood in for George Bush in the same 2000 race.

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