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Presidential debates: images and issues

If the results of the 10 previous televised presidential debates are any guide, voters watching the October debates between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale and between George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro will make their judgments based first on the candidates' personalities and images, and then on issues. Apparently the way a candidate expresses a view has been more important to voters than the view itself.

Thus far in the campaign Mr. Reagan's strategy has been image oriented, while Mr. Mondale's emphasis has been on issues. Reagan has been called the ''Teflon President'': Though voters hold him accountable for certain negative events (issues), his popularity (image) ratings continue to be high. His public appearances have been orchestrated to project specific images. Apparently, the image strategy works in his favor.

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Mondale's mistakes, however, are remembered by voters and continue to plague his issue-oriented campaign. His key advisers insist that their strategy of concentrating on issues will win out. Apparently they are not coaching the candidate on aspects of his presentation that may alter what many voters consider his lackluster image.

Previous presidential candidates and their advisers have felt a need to develop specific strategies for televised debates; the Reagan and Mondale forces may feel a similar need. An examination of the patterns of voter reactions to debates may prove useful for candidates and voters as the candidates prepare for the debates.

The most salient features of previous debates have been the candidates' overall performances and their clever remarks and gaffes, all of which have been replayed in subsequent press coverage. Consider some examples:

* Richard Nixon in the first debate of 1960 looked tired and drawn and appeared to be ill. His makeup was applied by an adviser, not a professional. Kennedy appeared to be alert, fresh, and in command. Kennedy won.

* Gerald Ford's comments in the second debate of 1976 about Soviet domination in Eastern Europe prompted questioner Max Frankel to ask, ''Did I understand you to say that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence ...?'' Ford confirmed and Carter won.

* Mr. Reagan's retort in the second 1980 debate - ''There you go again!'' - and Jimmy Carter's claim to have consulted his young daughter, Amy, on a foreign policy issue, prompted viewers and the press to record the debate in Reagan's favor.

Though debate gaffes may be accidental, clever remarks are often prescribed. Undoubtedly, Reagan and Mondale have briefing papers and are being rehearsed for their appearances (Oct. 7 and 21 in Louisville and Kansas City, respectively). Voters will watch the encounters to see who has the upper hand.

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Reagan will be a formidable television debate opponent for Mondale. He will come to the debates as well-rehearsed as he was in Cleveland in 1980. Heeding the history of issues and images in presidential television debates, Mondale, who has shown that he can play the word game as well as Reagan if he has a mind to (''Where's the beef?''), will need to confer with his advisers about debate strategy. The question is whether Mondale's debate advisers will consider the importance of a candidate's projected image in televised debates.

Voters are concerned about issues, but their concern for the presidential candidate as a leader gets resolved along image dimensions. Voters process both kinds of information.

In 1960 Roman Catholicism was an issue until John Kennedy's performance (mostly image) in the debates alleviated voters' fears of papal influence in the White House. Though the issue is turned inside out today, Catholics are divided on Ms. Ferraro's position on abortion. Despite the fact that Ferraro's public-policy decision on abortion is identical to the position George Bush held in 1980, she continues to be affected by the issue, while Bush seems to have inherited Reagan's ''Teflon'' protection, at least on this issue.

The current controversies over religion and politics between the candidates, and over church and state between clergy and the candidates, are not likely to disappear as an issue in this campaign year. It should be expected that debate questioners (once again left to the press and television news personalities) will broach this issue in the first debate.

Ms. Ferraro, unable to dump that issue in her solo appearances, likely will be confronted with it in the vice-presidential debate, to be held Oct. 11 in Philadelphia. It may prove to be the most significant debate in the campaign, if not in the history of televised debates. It certainly will be historic, marking two firsts: Never before has a female candidate or an incumbent vice-president participated.

In 1976 the League of Women Voters sponsored the first televised debate between vice-presidential candidates. At the time public concern was mounting over the qualifications of vice-presidents: Since 1945 three had succeeded to the presidency without election. In that debate Mondale confronted Sen. Robert Dole, the Republican candidate, and scored a personal triumph. Both Mondale's perceived competence and his popularity increased after that debate.

Debate researchers note that ''campaign events (such as debates) are more likely to affect images of those vying for lesser offices than those of presidential candidates.''

In terms of image, Ferraro enters the debate with two negatives. She lacks debate experience on television. And her standing in the polls has receded after an earlier rise that was based on the public's initial favorable response to her as the first female vice-presidential candidate of a major party. To some extent the change in her standing may result from volatility in public opinion polls: The polls were volatile in the last two presidential elections and in this year's Democratic primary. Curiously, her decline in the polls has been accompanied by a substantial increase in the crowds that turn out for her public appearances, a fact not reported in the media.

Bush's image includes two advantages - he is the incumbent and he gained television debate experience when he sought the nomination in the 1980 Republican primaries. In debates nonincumbents are concerned that they not be perceived as badgering the incumbent; presumably that is a concern of the Ferraro camp. On the other hand, Bush and his advisers may be concerned about his treatment of a woman opponent.

The vice-presidential debate most likely will include questions not only on economic, domestic, defense, and foreign policy issues, but also on the responsibilities of the vice-president. Ferraro will need to be substantially briefed on foreign policy to at least match the public's perception of Bush as privy to the foreign policy of the current administration. The public will try to determine if Ferraro, lacking Bush's experience, has the ability and the presence to deal with the problems and crises that confront the White House.

Factors that will determine the candidates' success or failure in the debate include how they interact with each other, how they handle questions, and whether they come across as knowledgeable and credible.

Since the strength of a democracy depends on an informed electorate, we should all be concerned about the effects of presidential debates. Even though voters' judgments may be image centered, they want to see debates in presidential elections and they do learn about issues.

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