Debates could have real impact on presidential race

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The presidential debates could have a significant impact on what promises to be an extremely tight election, according to Larry Butler, chair of Rowan's political science department.

Even if they're not following every nuance of the presidential race, many voting Americans will pay attention to the debates, according to Larry Butler, chair of the political science department at Rowan University.

"Most folks don't pay attention to what political junkies obsess about on a day-to-day basis, but debates are big events. They have the capacity to change opinions," says Butler, author of the book Claiming the Mantle: How Presidential Nominations are Won and Lost Before the Votes are Cast.

The debates could have even more of an impact this year in what promises to be an extremely tight election, according to Butler.

"I think it's going to be a very close election. From the popular vote standpoint, it's hard to get closer than the 2000 election. But we could end up with a tie in the electoral college. That's a more real possibility than in the past," says Butler.

When it comes to debating, Butler says Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama needs to demonstrate that he's ready to lead. GOP candidate John McCain, meanwhile, "has to keep the conversation on his terms," Butler says.

"Obama has to be in command, be on top of the issues, be clear, and come across as a leader," says Butler, who adds that Obama's eloquence as a speaker will be challenged in the debates.

"The debates could work against him if voters expect him to be as good a debater as he is a speech-maker."

McCain could have trouble, says Butler, "particularly if he loses his temper or appears ‘old.' What he needs to do is stay on the offensive."

In the lone vice presidential debate Oct. 2, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden needs to be concise, while GOP VP candidate Sarah Palin has to appear confident and well-versed on the issues, says Butler.

"Biden has to be disciplined, which is hard for him," Butler says. "He has to keep to one-to-two-minute answers. He has to stay on message and not be whiny or condescending."

Palin "has to sound like she's really on the ball," Butler adds. "She can't have any deer-in-the-headlights moments."

Fascinating to Butler thus far in this election is that no candidate is pulling out as a clear front-runner.

"The big surprise is the complete lack of momentum in this election," says Butler. "Every time there's a big moment or gaffe, the poll numbers immediately move and then it goes back to Obama being ahead by only two or three points."

Reach Butler at butlerl@rowan.edu or 856-256-4500, ext. 3985.

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