Small things loom large in presidential debates, insiders say

  • White House advance office director Ed Murnane consults with President George H.W. Bush before a debate Oct. 15, 1992, while in a room on the left challenger Bill Clinton peers out at the stage.

    White House advance office director Ed Murnane consults with President George H.W. Bush before a debate Oct. 15, 1992, while in a room on the left challenger Bill Clinton peers out at the stage. Photo courtesy of Ed Murnane

  • Republican gubernatorial candidates from left, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, Bruce Rauner, Treasurer Dan Rutherford and Sen. Bill Brady prepare for a televised debate Feb. 27, 2014, in Chicago.

    Republican gubernatorial candidates from left, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, Bruce Rauner, Treasurer Dan Rutherford and Sen. Bill Brady prepare for a televised debate Feb. 27, 2014, in Chicago. Associated Press

 
 

When Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton square off Sunday in their second presidential debate, few viewers will notice the seating arrangements.

But you can bet the candidates and key staffers will, explained former state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a gubernatorial contender who debated Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2014.

"Stools require practice," Dillard said. "How you sit on the stool, how you handle any papers you may have."

The key to a successful debate is no unpleasant surprises, say political insiders like Dillard and Ed Murnane of Arlington Heights.

Twenty-four years ago as White House advance office director, Murnane advised President George H.W. Bush on everything from camera angles to where his wife would be sitting at a fateful Oct. 15, 1992, debate.

Bush was an experienced debater but the town-hall format where the audience asked questions was new to him, although not to his politically savvy Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. "I think he was probably surprised somewhat by Clinton," Murnane said.

Also new and somewhat bemusing for Bush was the presence of third-party contender Ross Perot, who like Trump was an unconventional candidate. With Perot, "it was a question of 'why are you here?'" Murnane said.

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As the incumbent, Bush was expected to be on top of multiple issues so the debate team rehearsed him on every contingency.

"If someone pops up with something out of left field, you can get caught off-guard," Murnane said.

It wasn't lack of knowledge that damaged Bush but a momentary glance at his watch. The president "perhaps may have been getting a bit bored," Murnane speculated.

The lasting impression, fair or not, was that of a man who felt he had better things to do.

Unfortunately for Bush, the watch stumble occurred just before a worried voter asked him about the national debt's effects on "the common people." Clinton seized the opportunity to empathize with the voter and won the exchange.

Eight years later, George W. Bush turned the tables in a debate with Clinton's vice president, gaining traction with viewers annoyed by Al Gore's heavy sighs.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We all learned from Al Gore not to sigh," said Dillard, a Hinsdale attorney who also had a gubernatorial bid in 2010.

How do you show your opponent's remarks are fatally flawed without being obnoxious?

Every candidate should know the camera angles, Dillard said, and whether their reactions will be shown on a split screen.

"It's important not to make faces like a third-grader," he added. "But you clearly want to look concerned, and pay attention to what your opponents are saying so you can refute them when it's appropriate."

Trump's repeated interjections of "wrong," while Hillary Clinton criticized him in their Sept. 26 debate were satirized in a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

Interrupting is "a tough call," Dillard said. "Sometimes you don't want to say anything ... because you don't want to give extra credence to what they're saying."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At the vice presidential debate Monday, Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine had a red tie while Republican Gov. Mike Pence sported a blue one. Do campaign staffs confer on sartorial issues?

"It's totally random," Dillard said, adding, "I generally try to go with a red one."

After the first televised debate in 1960 against John F. Kennedy, President Richard Nixon was trashed not for his statements but for his sweaty appearance.

Now it's the norm for male politicians to wear makeup but Dillard admits, "it's a weird feeling and you just don't get used to it."

At the conclusion of every debate, candidates' families emerge as if out of nowhere to offer hugs. In reality, the seating of loved ones is a crucial part of the logistics.

Among Murnane's jobs was showing Bush senior where the First Lady was seated before every debate.

"I'm sure the first place he looked to was Barbara Bush," Murnane said.

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