Grading the Debate Candidates (posted January 7, 2000)

With several television debates under their belts, it now is time to judge how the various presidential candidates have conducted themselves in these encounters.

Gore: B+ The vice president earns kudos for his skill at pinning negative information on Senator Bill Bradley, such as the big spending liberal label and pointing out that big ideas also can be risky, a subtle dig at Bradley's inexperience. Yet despite his skill at debating, Gore still comes across as too tight and too programmed compared to his Democratic rival. Gore presents the look of a frontrunner seriously worried about whether he is going to lose. Nearly everything about his non-verbal communication screams out, "hey, I am desperate. I have to knock my opponent around." Needs to loosen up and present a positive vision of himself.

Bradley: A- Senator Bradley has gotten better as the debates have worn on. Initially pretty tentative in his presentation of himself and defense of his own programs, Bradley now seems more confident and sure of himself. He appears to understand that Gore has not knocked him out of the box and that the New Hampshire primary battle still is very competitive. Comes across as looser and more relaxed than Gore, but also more cerebral, which is not a positive for a presidential candidate. Needs to use more anecdotes to explain his abstract points so that he can relate better to ordinary people.

Bush: B Getting stronger, but still not very polished as a debator. Gives under-developed answers to complex questions and goes off on tangents that are unrelated to the question. Good at staying on message, meaning emphasizing tax cuts and strong executive skills based on his background. Not so good on factual information or unexpected topics. Needs to relax. He is the frontrunner with tons of money. Merely holding his own and not making any big mistakes should be enough to gain the nomination.

McCain: A The best debater of the leading candidates. Comfortable with himself and sure of his message. Deals effectively with critical questions on his "anger" problem and whether he is a hypocrite for helping big donors with regulatory problems. His biggest problem is that he is running against his own party and many of its core tenets. He also is seriously under-funded, which compromises his ability to get his own message out to voters.

Forbes: C Wrong messenger for his message. Talks the game of family values, yet not very effective at mustering moral fervor in his presentation. Comes across as way too nerdish and academic in his discussion of emotional topics. Promotes flat tax idea that would cut his own taxes dramatically. Only thing going for him is his personal cash supply.

Bauer: B- Strong message of opposition to declining values, but looks too much like a Vulcan character from Star Trek. I can't get past watching his ears when he talks! Could run stronger than expected on strength of his well-defined niche in the GOP. Needs to discuss issues other than abortion to extend his appeal.

Hatch: B+ Great sense of humor and good at parries with opponents, but hard to take seriously given his late start in the presidential campaign. Bush had raised $37 million by the day Hatch announced. Why bother?

Keyes: B+ Great orator and effective communicator, but gets poor questions in the debates, generally centering on race or moral issues. Does he have an economic program? Rarely hear him discuss the bread and butter issues of concern to most Americans.