Debate Season Underway For TV, Candidates

The presidential debate circuit began in earnest with CNN's forum from New Hampshire on Monday. It may be a slog, with more than a dozen such events already scheduled for Republicans who want President Barack Obama's job, but it's an obstacle course filled with opportunities and pitfalls for both candidates and television networks.

NEW YORK (AP) – Two down, 15 to go. At least.

The presidential debate circuit began in earnest with CNN’s forum from New Hampshire on Monday. It may be a slog, with more than a dozen such events already scheduled for Republicans who want President Barack Obama’s job, but it’s an obstacle course filled with opportunities and pitfalls for both candidates and television networks.

The CNN debate was a prime example: People were talking the day after about whether Rep. Michele Bachmann was savvy in attracting attention to herself by announcing her candidacy Monday, or whether Tim Pawlenty proved too cautious in going after opponent Mitt Romney.

From a television standpoint, CNN’s John King’s attempts to lighten the mood by asking candidates their preferences between Coke and Pepsi, or Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, were either seen as a silly distraction or a chance to see the candidates as humans instead of wonks.

Monday’s debate was seen by an average of 3.16 million viewers, the Nielsen Co. said Tuesday.

That may seem small in comparison to the 7.8 million people who watched “The Bachelorette” on ABC or the 5.3 million who saw the Stanley Cup Finals hockey game on NBC, but it’s big in the world of cable news. On a typical Monday night this year, CNN’s average audience is 652,000 people.

Though CNN’s presentation was widely seen as the debate season kickoff because it had more candidates, Fox News Channel actually went first. Its May 5 debate in South Carolina had only five candidates, not including the widely perceived frontrunner, Romney, or Newt Gingrich and Bachmann..


The 15 other Republican debates scheduled have sponsors including a variety of television networks, Politico, Google, YouTube, the Reagan Library and the Tea Party Express, according to the Republican National Committee. The next one is July 10 in Las Vegas.

It may seem like only political consultants would want to sit in front of their TVs through that gauntlet. But political programming was a big winner for TV networks during the last presidential election cycle, and Monday’s numbers show there’s a curiosity that can’t be denied.

“Debates can be game-changers,” said veteran political consultant Mark McKinnon. “The question if you’re a candidate is, do you want the game changed?”

That’s certainly not the case with front-runners. But for second-tier candidates such as Herman Cain, these debates represent an opportunity to be seen at least for a few hours on an equal footing with rivals. They can’t come close to this kind of exposure otherwise.

Yet exposure isn’t always flattering. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani saw his appeal diminish the more debates he appeared in four years ago, said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist and pollster.

Once a candidate, particularly one of the top contenders, gets involved in the debate process, it’s hard to skip forums without insulting sponsors or giving the unwanted impression that you’re above it all, Conway said. Don’t show up, and a candidate “is going to be a political pinata,” said Scott Reed, a GOP consultant who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.

“The impulse to let the clock run out and protect your lead can backfire because everyone is on high alert for you to flub your lines or contravene a past vote or past statement,” Conway said.

Romney came close on Monday night, at one point referring to U.S. support for the Taliban. CNN’s camera was focused on a man in military uniform who appeared visibly startled by the line, but Romney quickly corrected himself.

Even if relatively few viewers actually watch the debate, others are widely exposed afterward to what happened through newspaper and TV news reports, the Internet and social networks.

“Each one needs to be taken seriously,” Reed said.

Television networks are faced with the challenge of rising above the clutter themselves.

CNN is making an effort to differentiate itself on its next debate, scheduled for Sept. 12 in Florida and co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express. The tea party movement will be holding viewing parties across the nation and topics for the debate will be tailored for the interests of this political insurgent movement, said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief.

CNN tries to get viewers involved through questions sent in through social media, or by the public on camera.

“It’s valuable to the audience, it’s interesting to the viewer and it sends a message that it’s not just a debate by and for journalists,” Feist said.

A challenge for television networks this debate season will be to incorporate social media into the forums. Its use has exploded in popularity since the last presidential cycle, said Mark Lukasiewicz, in charge of politics and special events coverage for NBC News. Networks could be responsive to the audience in a way never before possible. For example, it there is extensive social media chatter about a moment in the debate, the network could encourage its moderators to revisit it.

Otherwise, Lukasiewicz said, “I don’t think gimmicks make a good debate.”

Most of the debate moments that are remembered involve substantive exchanges among candidates that crystallize public thinking about the issues or those involved, he said. Fewer people remember a particularly clever or provocative question, he said.

“You rise above the clutter by getting real answers, by getting a candidate — either inadvertently or intentionally, being clear about an issue,” he said.

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