Goofs, gotchas in a debate that you could mail in - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Goofs, gotchas in a debate that you could mail in

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2012 7:14 am | Updated: 8:24 pm, Wed Feb 22, 2012.

Each presidential primary or caucus is only for voters who live in the state where it is held.

Presidential debates, however, are national events, nationally televised.

It's fair to predict that somewhat more Arizonans will be tuning in to next Wednesday's telecast of the latest exhibition of verbal fencing, pre-scripted zingers, unplanned goofs and, oh, yes, issues, live at 6 p.m. from the Mesa Arts Center.

Officially, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are here to present their case to Arizona Republican voters, who cast ballots in the state's presidential primary Feb. 28.

But if any of the previous forums featuring the GOP presidential candidates are any indication, aside from an insert-local-issue-here question or two on immigration or home foreclosures, it will all be the same send-up as before, designed for the national audience to which it's being beamed.

The candidates will fly in, wave to a few people, then get into big cars where their eyes will be on debate talking points, not on the number of foreclosed homes and shuttered retail establishments we still have in the East Valley. They'll get dropped off at the arts center, wave again and quickly make their way inside where that all-too-familiar stage once again will be their focus.

It was the same in 2008, where large fields of both Democratic and Republican hopefuls stood behind those lecterns. Voters have become used to watching these spectacles not so much to learn the candidates' positions as to see who will get the big gotcha of the night, or who will make the biggest boo-boo.

And that's what we remember from these broadcasts. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent "oops" moment -- in which he said as president he'd get rid of three cabinet-level departments but could only name two -- was far from the first stubbed toe behind those lecterns.

In 1988 it was the vice presidential debate that featured the GOP's Dan Quayle saying the first thing he'd do if he suddenly succeeded to the presidency was to say a prayer, which today seems natural but then appeared weak.

That same year, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis elicited gasps by stating he would not favor the death penalty even if he had learned that his wife had been murdered.

Gerald Ford had a straight face when he said in 1976 that the Soviets did not rule Eastern Europe, which of course at the time they certainly did.

As for the gotchas, then 73-year-old Ronald Reagan had one of the best when in 1984, speaking of younger Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, Reagan said that he refused to make age a campaign issue: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." (Even Mondale laughed.)

And in that 1988 vice presidential debate, when Quayle, then a first-term senator and former congressman, asserted that John F. Kennedy had the same amount of time in Congress when he became president as Quayle had, Democratic rival Lloyd Bentsen swooped in: "I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine," Bentsen said. "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Today we wait for the gaffes and the zingers, because after all American politics comes down to this: Several months of what we consider to be entertainment (where we can't wait to see what a candidate we don't like will say next) and sports (rooting for our party's candidate because he's our party's candidate no matter how bad he or she is) followed by a day or so when we get all serious and mark our ballots.

Whether they created this atmosphere or merely reflect it, campaign strategists know this.

Voters don't demand answers as much as they do comforting statements that reaffirm their own beliefs, or better yet for candidates, their fears. Fear motivates better than any other emotion, of course, which is why negative campaigning is almost always the most effective.

Of course, negative campaigning is about one's opponents' weaknesses, not about one's own strengths. If the previous debates are any guide, each candidate's biggest exhibition of qualifications Wednesday night will be in each saying how much more conservative he is than the others.

Meanwhile, you've got to give the city of Mesa credit for being one debate host community that attempts to derive some local benefit from the debate, even if the candidates themselves don't provide any.

A giant screen will be set up outside the Arts Center for a big debate viewing party. City Manager Chris Brady told the Tribune's Garin Groff that he hopes the event gives East Valley residents a chance to see Mesa's emerging downtown.

It's too bad that the candidates themselves will be too busy poring over their talking points to notice.

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