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Sherman Says: Not designed as entertainment, debates will shed light on candidates

The amount of discussion that took place, leading up to the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, rivaled a Super Bowl pregame show for the depth of analysis, searing speculation and pure overkill.

All of the major networks’ talking heads spoke about Romney’s game plan for the first 5 minutes of the Oct. 3 debate and what he would have to do to seize momentum from the president. Several urged a verbal attack, the likes of which the Republican challenger has never embraced. The topic, selected in advance, was domestic policy and the commentators did everything except tell Romney what color tie he should wear.

This week’s debate was hosted by the University of Denver and moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS.

In order to fill more air in the Sunday morning repertoire, at least one network served up a collection of gaffes from previous presidential debates. It looked as if the producers were hoping to put a hex on this year’s meetings. If I was either candidate, I would have changed the channel. The mental image of Richard Nixon sweating – literally – while trying to counter John F. Kennedy’s charisma, during a 1960 debate, is something no candidate wants in the back of his mind, while attempting to win the support of voters.

Two additional debates are scheduled between the White House hopefuls. The debate on Tuesday, Oct. 16 will have less structure than the first. This debate, which will be held at Hofstra University and moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN, is billed as a “town meeting,” in which citizens may ask questions of the candidates about foreign and domestic issues.

The candidates will each have 2 minutes to respond and there will be an additional minute for the moderator to lead a discussion. Town meeting participants will be undecided voters, selected by the Gallup Organization.

The final debate, held on Monday, Oct. 22, will focus on foreign policy. The format will be the same as in the first debate. CBS’s Bob Schieffer will be the moderator.

Voters need to remember that these broadcasts are not intended as entertainment and that they should not be waiting to tweet about the first slip of the tongue or sign of indecision. These debates allow Americans to hear the candidates’ answers and see how they react when challenged or backed into a corner.

Romney may have an edge here, because of the lengthy process of capturing the Republican nomination. He has been trading jabs with members of his own party since the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10.

Obama, on the other hand, has the luxury of speaking about important decisions and policies from a podium in the East Room. He gets sole possession of the floor at these times, but that autonomy may cost him the razor-sharp edge needed when sparring in the political ring. That advantage may prove to be a disadvantage, if Romney seizes the moment.

Not to be overlooked is the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 between incumbent Joe Biden and Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan. That meeting will cover both foreign and domestic topics and be divided into nine time segments of approximately 10 minutes each. The venue will be Centre College in Danville, Ky., which hosted the 2000 showdown between Dick Cheney and Joseph Lieberman. Next week’s event is being called “Thrill the ‘Ville II” and will be moderated by Martha Raddatz of CNN.

These four debates are the last rungs in the presidential race ladder. As an audio-visual experience, they will require an open mind and only a modest level of attention from registered voters. Neither candidate will have the opportunity to kiss any babies or speak from a bullhorn. The decorum of a respected center of higher learning is an ideal backdrop for the issue before us.

The election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 6. On that day, you are the moderator.

David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at

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