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Presidential Debates Test Candidates' Skill, Mettle

WHO won?

In living rooms across America, that question will be heard Sunday night after the first three-way debate between George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot.

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Picking a winner, however, isn't always so easy, even for the experts. Sometimes the full impact of a debate doesn't become apparent for 24 to 48 hours.

Experts look at several points in deciding who came out ahead. Was the candidate relaxed? Did he show a sense of humor? Did he get his message across? Perhaps most important is whether the candidate avoids serious gaffes that make him look foolish.

Remember the 1976 clash between President Gerald Ford and Gov. Jimmy Carter? The subject was foreign policy. Mr. Ford was confident. Governor Carter was shaky, for this was his weakest area. Afterwards, public opinion polls declared Ford a clear winner. But the next day, people read newspaper reports which pointed out that Ford had stated incorrectly that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union.

Within 24 hours, the polls reversed. Even GOP surveys later showed that the president had lost to Carter by a huge margin of 45 percent. It was Ford's last big chance to retain the White House.

There is no simple way to determine the winner. But political experts such as Dr. Austin Ranney, editor of "The Past and Future of Presidential Debates," give several guidelines. Among them:

* Who spoke the most? Surprisingly, some presidential candidates fail to get their share of time in debates. This can hurt. When necessary, they must demand time to answer questions to keep others from stealing the show.

* How does the press react? As Ford learned, press "spin" makes a difference. That's why campaigns send several of their top people into the press room after a debate to sway reporters' views. If the headlines after Sunday cite a "Bush gaffe," a "Clinton blunder," or a "Perot mistake," that person could be seriously damaged.

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* Who sets the agenda? In 1960, Richard Nixon, a skilled debater, followed the rules and tried to address each question. John Kennedy confidently whizzed right past questions and delivered his campaign message. Mr. Nixon "won" the debate academically. But it was Mr. Kennedy who got his message across to voters. Political scientist Nelson Polsby noted: "Kennedy `won,' mostly on appearance, not substance...."

* Whose answers are memorable? Remember Walter Mondale's remark - "Where's the beef?" - to the "new ideas" candidate, Gary Hart? In one swift punch, Mr. Mondale knocked the air out of Mr. Hart's campaign theme. Ronald Reagan was also deft at slipping in a devastating phrase, often done so gently that his opponent hardly noticed.

* Who gives complete answers? Quick, sound-bite responses make the TV news, but don't make voters change sides.

Richard Cheney, the current defense secretary, once noted in a study of the 1976 election that long answers are what really change voters' minds. Long answers should include not only what a candidate supports, but why. Brief answers don't supply enough information to make a strong case, Mr. Cheney says.

* Who uses humor well? A presidential debate is serious business, but that doesn't exclude the timely quip, self-deprecating humor, or the funny story when it is appropriate. Kennedy and Reagan were masters at delivering a good line just when it would be most effective.

It also signals voters that a candidate doesn't take himself too seriously.

* Who is relaxed; who is nervous? In the Nixon-Kennedy debate, many TV viewers thought Kennedy won, while those listening on radio gave the nod to Nixon. One reason: Nixon was sweating, indicating nervousness, while Kennedy was cool and calm - a difference not lost on the TV audience.

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