Politico’s Playbook had an item this morning on how Tim Pawlenty skipped a debate prep session to go bowling — he out-bowled his staffer Alex Conant by 46 points. Mitt Romney supposedly prefers full-on dress rehearsals, while Rick Santorum prefers conference calls and e-mails with his advisers. And Herman Cain told NRO last month that he tries to “to focus on being ‘Happy Herman’ to keep himself in the right frame of mind for the debate.” However one does it, though, one cannot overlook the importance of debate preparation in how the debates play out.
I did the policy work for the 2004 Bush-Cheney debate-prep efforts, and one of the keys is to make sure that the candidate actually reads the briefing book. Jack Kemp, for example, was rumored to have been reluctant to review his debate book in his 1996 debate with Al Gore, and had a famously poor showing. Another key, as I discussed on CNN earlier, is that the candidate must be both knowledgeable and relaxed, as the visual cues the candidate gives off are at least as important as the substance of what the candidate says. A third key is to give the candidate sufficient breadth to have something to say on all of the subjects that the questioners are likely to raise. There may be 40,000 potential questions, but there are really only 40 answers, and successful candidates funnel the questions towards relevant subjects they want to talk about and are comfortable with. At the same time, they must do this funneling in a way that is not too obvious.
As Sun Tzu famously said, the battle is usually won before it is ever fought. This is the case in debates as well, and those with the best preparation will usually come up with the best performances.