Debates often more show than substance

Staff writer, CT Post

Article Launched: 09/25/2008 05:41:01 PM EDT

Tonight's presidential debate -- if it happens -- isn't likely to sway the committed supporters of Barack Obama or John McCain, but the face-off might influence those crucial voters yet to make up their minds.

That's the verdict of college professors and politicians in the region, several of whom share a low opinion of post-debate television commentary on who "won" and "lost."

"The debate, American style, has turned into a sporting event, where people keep score as they thrust and parry, said Rich Hanley, professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. "The audience should be on the lookout for catch phrases like, 'Where's the beef?' and 'I knew Jack Kennedy,' and 'senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.' "

Hanley added that presidential debates have come to resemble a televised football game. "It even has a pre-game and a post-game show. I don't know how you actually keep score -- it's part of the political theater of the 21st century."

Hanley questioned the amount of actual debating that will take place. "These things are carefully scripted, actually. Unlike the days of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, both sides are equally sophisticated in terms of optics -- how they look."

"I think it's going to pull in a huge audience," said Henry Schissler, a professor of sociology at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport. "And this is because there's been so much trash talk, people are looking for specifics."

Schissler recommended that people turn off the TV set or tune in the late movie after the closing handshake. "The bottom line is that when it's over, voters shouldn't be swayed by the pundits and the ideologues who parade as commentators on many networks."

Gary Rose, the department of political science chairman at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, said that a debate doesn't truly gauge a candidate's fitness for office.

"Debates do make a difference with swing voters, but do they really measure a candidates ability? My answer is they do not."

Rose said that skills needed to do well in a debate have little to do with those needed to succeed in the White House.

"You do get a sense of how well a person can think on their feet" -- and that's a requirement for the office, Rose said. "But the debates themselves don't require a lot of that skill, because the parameters of the questions are submitted in advance. There's a lot of control over these debates. Even the term debate doesn't really apply here to a large degree. There no point and counterpoint."

Former Bridgeport Mayor John M. Fabrizi said that it's important for viewers to key in on the issues, rather than the platitudes.

"I enjoyed debating. As a matter of fact, I was in 13 debates when I was running for mayor," Fabrizi said. "I was the guy that everybody was targeting because I was leading in the polls. It was all of them against me. But that gave me the opportunity to explain to the voters who I am and what I would do to tackle the city's problems."

"What really frustrates me is to have these TV commentators give you their reaction of what you just heard," said former state Sen. George "Doc" Gunther of Stratford, a fixture at the state Capitol in Hartford for four decades.

"It's enough to make me flip. My God, they never let up. They don't give you chance to sit down and say to yourself, 'What did they just say?' "

"The first presidential debate seems to be very important," said Don Greenberg, associate professor of politics at Fairfield University.

"The ones that follow don't seem to have much of an impact, but with first one, voters watch it and it seems to get a huge audience."