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When the candidates face each other in TV debates, this viewer's guide will help you tell a foul from a field goal

Listen carefully, because there will be a test. When Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush meet in TV debates this month, each candidate's advisers will tell you that their man won. The test: It's up to you to decide which side is all wet.

The debates will be your best chance to evaluate the two men who are battling for the presidency. To sift through the rhetoric and be a critical viewer, experts offer these suggestions:

KEEP SCORE. There's no official point system, but don't let that stop you. Try taking notes on a sheet of paper with columns labeled "Bush" and "Gore," marking a + for successes and a -- for failures, with a quick word next to each mark to remind you what it's about.

BEWARE HOT AIR. Do the candidates support their assertions with specific evidence (+), or do they rely on unexplained generalities (-)? How well do they rebut their opponents' points? Do they state each other's views fairly (+) or unfairly (-)?

KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL. "These guys will have been trained by their handlers to answer the question they wanted somebody to ask, not the question they were asked," says James Copeland, a former high school debate coach who helps the Associated Press judge presidential debates. For example, he says, suppose Gore is asked if he still supports the Clinton health-care reform plan of 1993. "He may say something like, `It is enormously important that we work toward health coverage for all, beginning with children.'" If he says a clear yes or no, he could lose support from those who disagree. But if he doesn't, he should get a -- from you.

WATCH FOR GAFFES. This is the fear that keeps handlers up nights. In 1976, President Gerald Ford earned a big -- hen he incorrectly denied Soviet domination of Poland. His error seemed to reveal a devastating ignorance--and Democrat Jimmy Carter quickly pounced on it.

CHECK THE LAUGHS. Funny lines can be a +; we all love wit. But be careful. In debates, jokes have a serious purpose. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan's shaky performance in his first debate with Democrat Walter Mondale made people ask if Reagan, 73, was still mentally up to the job. In the next debate, Reagan defused the issue by joking, "I won't hold my opponent's youth and inexperience against him." But the real question remained. A joke that evades an issue may merit a -.

DON'T BE A TUBE BOOB. Weigh the X factor of television itself. Veteran television journalist Marvin Kalb of the Kennedy School of Government warns that TV images can be deceptive, favoring candidates who are telegenic and can "caress the lens" (see "Screen Test for the White House"). "Ask yourself," Kalb advises, "`Is he talking to me? Does he seem like the real article? [+] Or is he putting on an act? [-]'"

TALLY THE POINTS. When the debate is over, review your score sheet. Which issues were most important to you? Add an extra + or - to give them more weight. Then add up the + and -- marks you've made for each candidate. The total you get may not predict who will win in November, but it will help you identify your winner.

George W. Bush Checklist

[] Is Bush smart enough? Can he explain, say, his complex plan to overhaul the Medicare health program?

[] Does Bush use words like "restoring honor" to try to link Gore with the Clinton scandals--without actually blaming Gore?

[] Does Bush use his famous charm to avoid stating clear positions on issues?

[] Does he try to associate Gore with Democrats who lost in past elections?

[] Does Bush get words mixed up? (He has said "preserve" for "persevere" and "tenants" for "tenets," and used the phrase "more few.")

Al Gore Checklist

[] Does listening to Gore make you feel like you're back in third grade? (He has been criticized for talking down to people.)

[] Does Gore take more credit than he deserves for things like the strength of the economy or the creation of the Internet?

[] To show he's not a robot, does Gore go overboard in displaying deep emotion?

[] Does he turn Bush's lines against him? When 1996 opponent Jack Kemp boasted that Kemp's economic plan was like "Niagara Falls," Gore said it would "put the American economy in a barrel and send it over the falls."

Rate the Debates

FOCUS: How to Score the Bush-Gore Presidential Debates


To help students understand how presidential debates work and how to evaluate the debate performances of the candidates, Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

Discussion Questions:

* Do you think debates are the best way to learn about candidates' positions on key issues?

* If you were moderating a presidential debate, what one or two questions do you believe would be most important to ask the candidates?

* What, besides what they hear in the debates, do debate viewers need to learn about the presidential candidates if they are to make informed choices on Election Day?


Before Reading: Students draw up platforms in which they write a set of goals--what they think government should do to address key issues. Then see how the candidates handle these issues in the debates. Examples:

* Health Care: Should the federal government provide health insurance that guarantees coverage for everyone?

* Family Farms: Should the government offer subsidies to keep family farms from being swallowed by agribusinesses?

* Crime: Will tougher sentences reduce crime? Should society penalize parents whose children break the law?

Web Watch: Look up the Commission on Presidential Debates Students can take an online survey and even submit a question that might make it into one of the debates. Check NCSS Election 2000 which provides background on parties, candidates, and campaign news.

Rating the Debate: Design a score sheet with a place for + and - marks as suggested in the article. Students watch a debate and mark their sheets, noting briefly how candidates performed in the ways identified--and in other ways.

History/Critical Thinking: Direct students' attention to the Reagan joke on page 7, or tell them about vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen's famous "You're no Jack Kennedy!" line against opponent Dan Quayle in 1988. Does a "winning" debater always deserve support, or are some lines and tactics that win public favor actually cheap shots?
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:evaluating Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush, presidential candidates
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 2, 2000
Previous Article:Mystery Meat.
Next Article:Screen Test for the White House.

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