MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's start with the inescapable political news of the week. In a little over 24 hours, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be face to face at New York's Hofstra University for their first debate. Trump goes into the debate gaining on Clinton in the polls but still with a lot of doubt from voters over his command of issues and temperament. Clinton retains her lead, but it has shrunk over the last month. And she still faces challenges connecting with voters. NPR's Ron Elving is with us now to tell us more. Hi, Ron. Thanks for joining us.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hello, Michel.
MARTIN: So - so can we settle this? How much do debates actually matter?
ELVING: You know, they matter because the voters get to see the candidates under unique conditions of pressure. And we learn a lot about the candidates. So in that sense they certainly do matter. But if you're talking about who's going to win on November 8, there's a lot of debate over how much the debates actually affect the outcome of the election.
People who work with data tell us it's not that much. It's a small bump, if that, and it's temporary. And that may be true if you look at the September, October debates in the last three presidential cycles. But if you look back a little further - 2000 Al Gore rolling his eyes at George W. Bush or all the way back to 1960, the first televised debates - pretty hard not to say that was the beginning of the Jack Kennedy mythos, the great Jack Kennedy appeal really began with those Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. So, yeah, those things mattered.
MARTIN: There's been a lot of discussion about the role of the moderator. NBC's Lester Holt is going to be in the chair tomorrow night. Now, the Clinton campaign says his role is to fact-check what the candidates say. They say that if he doesn't do that, Donald Trump gets an unfair advantage. And it shouldn't become a he-said-she-said, but Donald Trump has said that that isn't his job. How have moderators addressed this in the past?
ELVING: By and large they have not wanted to be fact-checkers. Jim Lehrer of PBS has had this role far more often than anyone else, and he felt that his job was to avoid becoming a third debater on the stage or a judge on the case. Now, in 2012, Candy Crowley of CNN had a moment when she corrected Mitt Romney regarding something that President Obama had said about Benghazi, and the Republicans cried foul.
And they are still crying foul about it. Mike Pence was on television this morning, "Face The Nation" on CBS saying the Crowley had turned out to be wrong. Well, on the facts, she was actually correct. But there were those who thought it wrong for her to have taken sides or to have corrected one of the candidates but not having had an occasion to correct the other.
MARTIN: So one thing that is clearly going to be different tomorrow night is that these are one-on-one encounters. I mean, during the primary you had as many as a dozen people on stage on the Republican side at any one time. Clinton had a couple of people that she was running against, but then it became kind of one on one. So what's going to be different?
ELVING: The pressure is much more intense, and the scrutiny is much more concentrated because you are absolutely always the focus. Even while the other candidate is speaking in a one-on-one debate, there will be a camera on you and a split screen showing your reactions. That's part of what was so tough on Al Gore back in 2000. You also can't get any help from anybody else on stage, which was typical in the multi-candidate debates. You saw some tag teams develop where a couple of people or even three people would be ganging up on somebody else. You're not going to have any of that dynamic. And some of that can actually be helpful for one candidate or the other.
MARTIN: What do you see as the goal for each candidate tomorrow night?
ELVING: For Trump, he needs to be measured and in control and in a word, presidential. As his own campaign manager has said, look like you're ready to be president on day one. For Clinton, it's more complicated. She wants to look presidential, of course, but she also needs to seem warmer, easier to relate to. She needs to be candid above all, and she needs to connect on a human level. Overall, that is a more complex and nuanced challenge.
MARTIN: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thank you.
ELVING: Thank you, Michel.
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