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Upcoming Presidential debates could be the deciding factor of who 'wins' the Oval Office

By Bob Brown

With Presidential debates rapidly approaching, I contacted a Montanan who is one of the nation’s most respected experts on debating. Kalispell native and graduate of both Montana State University and the University of Montana, Allan Louden is a professor at Wake Forrest University in North Carolina where he coached the intercollegiate debate team to two national championships, two second place finishes, and seven times to the final four.

During the period Louden was coaching, perennial debate power Wake Forest was twice selected to host Presidential debates, in 1988 between the first President Bush and Michael Dukakis, and in 2000 between Bush II and Vice President Al Gore.

I had the good fortune of being Louden’s debate partner at MSU in the 1960’s. I asked him what debating skill has to do with being a good President. He replied that “debates smoke out good judgment. “ In addition, Louden commented that the intense 90-minute debates reveal philosophy, depth of understanding and quickness which are “readily recognizable characteristics of leadership.” Louden believes the debate format provides “by far the best unfiltered opportunity the people have to form an impression of who these guys really are.”

In 1988 Louden informally scored the debate on points for Dukakis, but remembers that its most telling exchange was when Bush forcefully accused a defensive Dukakis of being a “card carrying member of the ACLU.”

Louden remembers Gore in 2000 trying, perhaps too hard, to be “Mr. nice guy” in an attempt to recover from a character revealing episode of condescendingly sighing in the previous debate with Bush that year in Boston.

Without doubt debates have been critical in deciding presidential elections. Nixon’s haggard appearance and shifty demeanor in his first debate with Kennedy in 1960 is thought by many historians to have been a critical factor in Kennedy’s victory. Ford’s stumble over Soviet domination of Poland in a 1976 debate may have given that election to Carter. Challenger Reagan’s graceful and reassuring appearance in 1980 made him an acceptable alternative to the faltering Carter. The same occurred between the cool and prepared Obama and the more experienced but frazzled appearing McCain in 2008.

Polls show a close race this year with about 90 percent of the electorate claiming to have already made up their minds. At least for the wavering remnant, impressions of simple but subtle characteristics such as a more understandable approach to difficult problems, or impressions of personal traits such as courage or honesty, could be decisive both in the debate and in the election, according to Louden.

The power of incumbency is a great advantage, but when people feel the country is on the wrong track, challengers have a real chance. Reagan and Obama may only have had to demonstrate they were up to the job, which they succeeded in accomplishing in debates. Romney will have the same chance now.

This year’s critical first debate, focusing on domestic policy, will occur on October 3. The second, a “town hall meeting” style event, will be on October 16. The third, with a focus on foreign policy, will take place on October 22.

Vice-President Joe Biden and challenger Congressman Paul Ryan will face off in their only scheduled debate on October 11.

About 120 million people watched at least some of the London Olympics. Less than half that number saw even one of the presidential debates four years ago. The outcome of the close 2012 presidential race could definitely be decided by the upcoming debates. This is an important crossroads election, and quite possibly an historic one. Americans need to be watching.

Bob Brown is a former MT Secretary of State and State Senate President.

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