Winning the Presidential Debate

Welcome back!
      It's been a busy few weeks filled with travel, seminars, and lots of political and other news to make any media junkie salivate. Laura and I attended a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation who honored Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper and business leaders Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup and Virgina M. Rometty, President and CEO of IBM. According to many audience members that we spoke to, Mr. Harper's speech was indeed the highlight - garnering a huge ovation and a lot of buzz by the nearly 2000 business and political leaders in the room.
      There's a huge well of interest building for Wednesday's first Presidential debate and I will be doing some media 'hits' previewing it on Wednesday morning at 7:15 am EST on CTV's Canada AM and later in the day on CPAC (www.CPAC.ca). In this brief post, I will attempt to point out what both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney has to do in order to experience 'the thrill of victory' and to avoid 'the agony of defeat'.
Winning the Presidential Debate
1. Frame the ballot question. For Mr. Romney, facing a [slowly] recovering economy and a growing optimism in America's future, needs to frame the vote as 'change vs. more of the same'. That's a sweeter spot for him than merely posing it as a referendum on the President's stewardship of the economy. For President Obama, he has to frame it as 'who do you trust to finish the job and restore jobs for Americans'? The trust question is stronger for him, as a combination of brutal ads which have defined Romney as well as Romney's mis-steps (the 47% video) have shaken trust in Romney.
2. Connect with the swing voters in the swing states. A shift of about 3% overall, and an upswing for Romney in key states - especially Ohio and Florida, Wisconsin and one or two others - could put him in the White House. With 60 million viewers paying attention - quite a number for the first time - this has the possibility of being a game-changer. But the burden is on Romney to move the dial. Obama can't play it totally safe, but it's up to Romney to change the dynamic that is now in play.
3. Defend without looking 'defensive'. Each will have to defend against a series of attack points and must deflect them effectively, while getting back on his message track. Looking weak, fazed or caught off guard will be a tweet-able disaster that can grow exponentially after the debate.
4. Look and sound Presidential. That is a delicate art. As John F. Kennedy proved in 1960; Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992, it's vital to come across as someone whom you would trust with his finger on the nuclear button. It isn't based on your resumé or political experience. It is a combination of being 'comfortable in your own skin', sincere, determined, calm, yet with a sense of passion for the country and a voice for everyday Americans who get up every day, work hard, pay their taxes and obey the law.
5. Its not what you say, but how you say it that counts. According to a UCLA research project, 55% of the believed message comes from non-verbal cues (eye contact, facial expression, body language); 38% is based on the tone and attitude [Al Gore's heavy sighing and condescending tone hurt him badly in the 2000 debate with George W. Bush]; while only 7% of the believed message is based on what you actually say [again if you think of George W. Bush in 2000, his debate victory was not really based on his verbals]. however, a major blunder (Gerald Ford's 1976 gaffe in which he claimed that the Soviet Union does not dominate Eastern Europe was a huge blunder that may have cost him the election.]That doesn't mean they should have no content. On the contrary. Each must have a clear plan for how they would fix the economy and the major challenges facing America. That's the starting point for credibility - not the end point. The most memorable factors are the body language and tone.
6. Have crisp, clear answers to the questions. Evading questions immediately signals to the voter that he's just another politician who won't answer the question. The public has seen every version of evasion, so they need to address the thrust of every question - without 'litigating the case' as one of the Republican debate consultants advised the other day. This is not a detailed policy debate.
7. Remember you're in the voters' living room. Speak through the camera into the eyes of your voter. You have been invited into their living rooms and are seated at the end of the sofa. Have that conversation with that voter and his or her family about their concerns and aspirations.

Until next time.......

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