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Campaigns Prepare For Highly Anticipated Debates


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney have spent months carrying on a cross-country argument. But this coming week, they will face off against one another for the first time on the same stage. The first of three televised presidential debates will take place Wednesday night in Denver, Colorado. It's one of the most anticipated milestones in the long-running campaign. And it could be one of the last opportunities for the candidates to sway voters who haven't yet made up their mind.

To talk more about the debate, we are joined by two people who have spent a whole lot of time with the candidates on the campaign trail. NPR White House correspondents Ari Shapiro and Scott Horsley. Ari has been covering Governor Romney all year. Scott has been covering the president. Welcome to you both.


MARTIN: So, first a question for both of you. Both of these campaigns are doing their best to lower expectations heading into this week's debate. But who's got the most to gain and who's got the most to lose here?

HORSLEY: I think president Obama has the most to loose. I mean right now, if you look at the polls, he has a small but significant lead in most of the major battleground states. The wind seems to be blowing in his direction. His main task is not to screw it up, not to do something that really changes the dynamic in this race.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Whereas, Romney has a higher hurdle which is he actually has to upend the dynamic, reverses his slip in the polls, and give people a reason to believe that he will in fact be the better choice. Whereas, right now it looks like more people are leaning towards President Obama.

MARTIN: OK, so this is also the first time these two have actually debated one another. What do we know about their debating skills? What are their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to this?

HORSLEY: You know, I spoke to Brett O'Donnell, who was one of Romney's debate coaches late in the primaries. And he described Romney as an outstanding debater on a level of facts, analysis, policy, mastery of the data. He's not necessarily the great orator. He's not a preacher. He's not an inspirational speaker. But he did have some really great moments during the primary debate. This is one of them, for example, from Florida with Newt Gingrich.

MITT ROMNEY: Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation. But have you checked your own investments?


ROMNEY: You also have investments from mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.



HORSLEY: Now, on the flipside of that, I spoke with Bob Shrum who coach Ted Kennedy in 1994, when he debated and Romney in the Senate race. And he said he thinks that Romney's weakness is spontaneity, that if you can catch Romney off guard you can get him to say things that he might not want to say, like this famous quote, for instance, with Governor Rick Perry of Texas.

ROMNEY: Rick, I'll tell you what.


ROMNEY: Ten thousand bucks?


ROMNEY: Ten thousand dollar bet?

MARTIN: Those moments, as we just heard, you can really get people in trouble, these gaffes during debates.

HORSLEY: That's right. And that's why debates attract so much attention because they are unscripted, at least in large part. And they can sometimes be revealing when a candidate can't fall back on a printed text or a teleprompter. Barack Obama is certainly best known for his prepared remarks, and he's not always at his best in a debate.

One of the most remembered from the 2008 campaign was this exchange in early January with Hillary Clinton.

SCOTT SPRADLING: What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on the stage tonight, who seem to like Barack Obama more?

SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON: Well, that hurts my feelings.


SPRADLING: I'm sorry, Senator.


SPRADLING: I'm sorry.


CLINTON: But I'll try to go on.


CLINTON: He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad.

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: You're likable enough, Hillary. No doubt about it.

CLINTON: Thank you.


HORSLEY: The other challenge of the president's staff talk a lot about is his tendency to go on at great length. He can be professorial. He doesn't like to give snippet-type answers. That can be an advantage in a news conference or if he's giving a time-fixed interview, he can sort of run out the clock if he wants to. But it can really be a disadvantage when he is faced with a very strict time limit.

MARTIN: What have both of you been able to find out about how they are actually preparing? How much advance work can each of them really do to prepare for this?

SHAPIRO: Well, Mitt Romney is training with Ohio Senator Rob Portman, playing the role of Barack Obama, as he did four years ago. Portman trained with John McCain in 2008, playing the role of Obama.

HORSLEY: And the president Obama is going to be holing up in a nice resort outside Las Vegas later today. And he's scheduled to spend the next couple of days there. He'll still be, of course, doing some of his presidential duties. But he is going to supposedly devote a fair amount of time to strict debate preparation; put the distractions aside. That's been tough for him.

He's had debate prep sessions that have had to be canceled because of, for example, events overseas. It's always difficult when you're the president to really clear out a large block of time and focus on just one thing.

MARTIN: I mean in these debates, there are opportunities to create these zingers, right? We all remember Ronald Reagan's, there you go again. Or Lloyd Bentsen's, you're no Jack Kennedy. But many debates don't produce these kinds of instant classics. How much difference do these prep sessions really make?

HORSLEY: Well, you're right. Really, when you think of all the time that we spend watching these debates and all the time the candidates spent preparing for them, there really aren't that many memorable lines that have come out of this. But what the president's team is concerned about is not some zinger that Mitt Romney might deliver, but the psychic lift that he could get simply from appearing on the same stage as the president.

When they look back at past presidential debates, they say the challenger always gets a boost in that first debate, just from being on the same level as the president. And all of a sudden it's not, you know, the president of the United States versus that challenger. Its two men standing on the same stage taking questions. It can be a great equalizer for the challenger.

SHAPIRO: You know, you mentioned the most famous lines of debates. And as I talked to debate coaches who have pressed past candidates, they say many of those lines are formally scripted in advance. You know, there are focus groups, they are tested and they are just waiting to roll them out. Karen Hughes, George W. Bush's debate coach told me that they even had some lines that they never got a chance to use.

In the first debate with Al Gore, Gore was notably sighing a lot and was judged to have lost the debate through his sort of imperious body language. The Bush team had a line ready to go in the second debate, speaking directly to that. But Gore had learned not to sigh and not to look so domineering. So they never got to roll out the line.

MARTIN: Well, thank you to both of you for the inside scoop. NPR's White House correspondents Scott Horsley and Ari Shapiro, thanks you guys.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: Enjoy the debate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.