Dukakis Gets Debate Advice: Drink Juice, Use Elbows
Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis is finding that advice is cheap and abundant when it comes to presidential debates.
Shoot from the outside and use your elbows, suggested New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, a former high-scoring forward for the New York Knicks.
“I told him to take the open shot and play tough defense,” Bradley told reporters Friday.
And go easy on preparations, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo warned.
“Drink orange juice,” he recalled telling the candidate. “Run, jog, carry those weights, all those silly things that you do that you enjoy. Go ahead. Put your shorts on. But go alone. And don’t let them talk to you.”
Presumably, the Massachusetts governor was also getting more substantive tips when he holed up with his top advisers all day Friday to prepare for Sunday night’s crucial first debate against Republican presidential nominee George Bush in Winston-Salem, N. C.
But top aides were tight-lipped about tactics and strategy as they scurried through the Lafayette Hotel lobby to a closely guarded 22nd-floor, one-bedroom suite that has become the Dukakis debate training camp.
Other aides said Dukakis would review tapes of Bush’s debates and would practice his retorts and ripostes in the suite’s living room, set up with video cameras, two lecterns, a blue curtain and TV lights.
The aides said that the drill would include a series of 20-minute question-and-answer sessions rather than a full 90-minute mock debate with play-acting panelists and veteran Bush stand-in Robert Barnett.
And, unlike in Winston-Salem, both practice lecterns are at the same height, spokesman Mark Gearan said. “He’s standing on 10 of his balanced budgets,” Gearan joked.
One goal in the sessions was to trim Dukakis’ often lawyerly, statistic-laden replies to tight TV sound bites that would break through the controlled debate format.
“We’re trying to sharpen the message,” one aide involved in the preparations said. “Cut the three-minute reply to one minute. Make sure the answers are crisp and make the point he wants.”
Another aide said that Dukakis would try to “fill in the picture of who he is.” He said the governor would focus on his record and “bring Bush down a peg or two by tying him to the failures” of the Administration.
“He doesn’t memorize his answers,” the aide added. “But he doesn’t jump off the script a lot. . . . He’s not going to shoot from the hip.”
Moreover, the campaign staff knows Dukakis must display the energy and warmth that helped fuel his enthusiastic reception at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in July. That warmth is often missing when Dukakis campaigns.
“I don’t think you’ll see a transformation,” the first aide said. “In Atlanta, he was at the top of his game, but he wasn’t a different person. . . . He’s a very inner-directed person. And, just as in Atlanta, I don’t think we’ll know, until this thing starts, his level of intensity.”
Officially, the campaign calls the debate the start of “a new phase” in the race. But aides acknowledge that the match-up before an estimated 100 million TV viewers may be a turning point in their campaign for the White House.
In addition to Bradley and Barnett, those in the inner sanctum Friday included campaign chairman Paul B. Brountas, debate chief Tom Donilon, campaign manager Susan Estrich, vice chairman John Sasso, issues director Christopher Edley Jr. and deputy Victoria Rideout, foreign affairs adviser Madeleine Albright, media consultant Robert Squire and speech writer Theodore C. Sorensen.
Still, Dukakis may have gotten his best advice when he appeared before TV cameras early Friday to toss a baseball outside his Perry Street home with lanky Red Sox center fielder Ellis Burks.
“Finesse,” Burks cautioned as the candidate threw a wild pitch. “Just warming up,” Dukakis replied before firing a fastball at his partner.