By Joanne Ostrow, Denver Post Television Critic
Let the fact-checkers do their thing. Let the pundits judge who won.
For the television audience — and, after all, we are the real target for the debate, particularly the undecideds on the couch — there are more visceral cues we’ll seek before anointing a winner.
Like it or not, this is show business. Acting presidential is equivalent to being presidential. Sounding like a leader in this media audition will help the contender to land the part.
Stagecraft matters. The importance of JFK’s tan and rested appearance versus Nixon’s pasty look under the lights remains the defining shorthand for how to win an intense round of modern media rivalry. Movement is limited, but some debaters have found ways to walk toward the opponent or demonstrate comfort in their own skins.
President Barack Obama and his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have the physical part down. With two candidates looking fit and briefed to within an inch of spontaneity, the challenges this year are subtler.
The keys to victory in the 2012 presidential candidates’ debates are different for each candidate. To score points with the TV audience, Obama has to sell himself as less professorial, less remote, more Clinton-style warm and exciting. Romney needs to sell himself as more human, less robotic, more W-style accessible.
Viewers want to see them engage, not just relay jabs through a moderator.
For both, the key is to avoid a major gaffe, or even a small gaffe that could be portrayed as major. The goal is to be superprepared without looking superprepared.
Bringing out enough canned “ad libs” and quotable zingers will help, as long as they don’t sound overrehearsed. Presumably, both parties have squadrons of speechwriters putting the finishing touches on a clever turn of phrase that will be cited long after the lights go down.
“There you go again.”
“Where’s the beef?”
The winner will chart a course midway between corny superpatriotism and cynical intellectualism. The challenge is to appear to debate while actually orating. The apparent winner, to those watching from home, will be the one who appears to be engaging his opponent while actually landing polished punches for the cameras, all while sounding like a leader with answers.
And not sweating.