Millions are expected to tune in to tonight’s first campaign debate between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Rockville resident Dan Breslaw won’t be one of them.
“I already know who I’m going to vote for,” said Breslaw, a Kerry supporter. “The only reason I would watch is to see somebody screw up or fall on their face, and they have guarded against that with that book of rules they came up with.”
Interviews with a handful of Maryland voters Wednesday showed a distaste for the detailed rules that have been laid out for the debate, a 32-page document that was agreed to after exhaustive negotiations between lawyers from both camps.
“The debates are boring because they are choreographed,” said Steve Kerbel, another Rockville resident who planned to take a pass on the event.
This year’s rules are more comprehensive than any in recent history, said David Lanoue, a University of Alabama political science professor.
Lanoue, who wrote “The Joint Press Conference: The History, Impact, and Prospects of American Presidential Debates,” said that gaffes in past debates have led candidates to demand rules that would reduce the chance of slip-ups.
“People who run political campaigns are almost, by nature, paranoid,” Lanoue said. “So they involve themselves with the tiniest level of minutia and that involvement sucks some of the spontaneity out of the event.”
That is enough to turn off voters like Tom Brewer.
“I think that the debates would be much more useful if they took the brakes off as far as the process is concerned, if they lost the lawyers and just let Bush and Kerry go at it,” said Brewer, a Dayton, Md., resident.
But the 32-page debate memorandum, signed by the Kerry and Bush campaigns a week ago, governs specifics ranging from the positioning of lights and podiums to the specific wording moderators must use when cutting off a long-winded answer.
One of the rules prohibits candidates from leaving their podiums or approaching each other, something that Brewer thinks should be allowed.
“The best part of the 2000 debate was when (former Vice President Al) Gore stalked up to Bush and looked like he was going to hit him — that was priceless,” said Brewer, a Bush supporter.
Frustration with the scripted nature of the debates was not the only reason given for skipping the broadcast. One woman said she did not have to tune in because extensive post-debate coverage would tell her everything she missed.
“I hear about them (the debates) on the radio while I’m driving, at work where everybody talks about them, and by all the media coverage that is going to follow them,” said Vanessa McCallister.
The Baltimore resident said she is undecided about the election, except that she knows she “will not vote for Bush.”
An August poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies said that only 7 percent of likely Maryland voters were undecided. That poll, taken before the Republican National Convention, gave Kerry a lead of 53-40 percent over Bush, but other polls have shown the race tightening since then.
Lanoue warned that relying on media coverage to get an accurate picture of what transpired during the 90-minute sessions is not a good idea because party operatives are constantly trying to shape the media’s post-debate narrative.
“There are two stages in debates: the actual debate and the battle over media spin,” Lanoue said. “We have seen, in prior debates, that the storyline that emerges becomes a distorted image of what actually happened during the debate.”
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