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O.C. matchup is prelude to debates

Times Staff Writer

The meeting between John McCain and Barack Obama today at Saddleback Church in Orange County will be brief -- a handshake and perhaps an exchange of pleasantries in between back-to-back interviews with the church’s pastor, Rick Warren.

But for the 3,000 people in the audience and viewers watching live on cable television, this first onstage matchup will offer a preview of the three critically important presidential debates, the first next month at the University of Mississippi.

Though appearing separately, the candidates will field similar questions about their faith, abortion, same-sex marriage and humanitarian efforts abroad. It is a chance for both to hone their comments on sensitive topics and practice connecting with an audience not chosen by their tightly controlled campaigns.

Debate analysts say that despite their different campaigning styles, neither McCain nor Obama will head into the debate phase with a clear advantage. “There’s not such a great disparity in talent,” said Northeastern University professor Alan Schroeder, author of “Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.” “This isn’t Bill Clinton versus Bob Dole.”

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Still, the campaigns have already begun trying to lower expectations. Obama spokesman Bill Burton noted that, with more than 20 primary debates, “we go into the fall, if nothing else, a tested organization.” But he quickly added that McCain, after two decades in Washington, is “obviously a great debater.” McCain strategist Charlie Black dryly noted that “in addition to being a great speechmaker,” Obama “is pretty good on his feet.”

In some respects, the candidates have opposite strengths.

Obama is often described as a powerful orator but was not a standout debater in the Democratic primary season. McCain is most comfortable speaking extemporaneously but has undercut his foreign-policy credentials with mistakes, such as mischaracterizing Iran’s role in Iraq and referring to the Czech Republic as Czechoslovakia.

“This is like a high-stakes trapeze act that these guys have -- because mistakes and gaffes matter oh so much in these contests,” said Tom Hollihan, a communications professor at USC’s Annenberg School.

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The two men will also have very different objectives in the three 90-minute presidential debates. McCain will try to convey his experience but must also show that “he has the energy and the forward-looking vision to lead” when matched with a much younger challenger, Hollihan said.

In addition, McCain faces the delicate task of energizing the Republican base while reaching out to independent voters disappointed in President Bush. “He has to deal with the ghost on the stage, and probably has to do that in a dramatic way,” said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.

By contrast, because of Obama’s youth and relative inexperience, many undecided voters will use the debates -- along with forums like today’s at Saddleback Church -- to assess the Illinois senator’s preparedness for the presidency.

“The pressure will be on Obama,” said Robert Friedenberg, a communications professor at Miami University in Ohio. With McCain likely to present himself as the “safe alternative,” Friedenberg said, “people will be looking for [Obama] to demonstrate a mastery of the questions.”

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Past presidential contenders have learned, however, that debates can turn not just on substance but on how voters perceive small gestures or how a candidate answers a sensitive question. George H.W. Bush’s decision to look at his watch three times during a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot telegraphed to some voters that he’d rather be elsewhere.

Michael Dukakis’ dispassionate answer in 1988 about whether he’d favor the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered hardened some voters against him.

McCain’s and Obama’s extensive debate practice in the primaries may prove instructive.

Obama was widely viewed as improving as a debater -- and he may have learned from criticism. He was faulted in one debate for appearing to gang up on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with John Edwards, and he took heat for what was widely interpreted as a snide remark to Clinton in a New Hampshire debate: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

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McCain’s difficulty is controlling his facial expressions. For him, there may be a cautionary tale in former Vice President Al Gore’s sighs in his first matchup with George W. Bush in 2000 or in Bush’s grimaces during his first 2004 debate with Sen. John F. Kerry.

McCain sometimes looked annoyed by his primary debaters, particularly former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who “really seemed to get under his skin,” Schroeder said.

“You can’t do that in a general-election debate,” he said. McCain’s advisors are likely to work on “keeping him on an even keel at all times and not letting the situation rattle him in any way,” Schroeder said.

By contrast, Hollihan noted that Obama generally appeared unruffled. “He very seldom lets his emotions get the better of him, which I think is very helpful,” he said.

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But that can have a downside too. Obama often seemed “almost too deliberate or reserved” in his answers, said Schroeder, which may be why Obama reportedly reviewed debate clips of Hillary Clinton, who was masterful at connecting with voters at those primary forums.

Obama “is a very nuanced thinker, and that’s good, but sometimes in the expression of that, it bogs him down a little bit -- so he’s not as direct a speaker or performer as the best debaters have been,” Schroeder said.

McCain has sometimes succeeded in forging instant connections with his audiences at town hall meetings. One of his strongest moments was during a June 2007 debate when he walked across the stage and gently told Erin Flanagan, a New Hampshire woman whose brother had been killed in Iraq, that the war had been “badly mismanaged.”

Black believes that moment and a passionate performance during another New Hampshire debate after Labor Day revived McCain’s candidacy.

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GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who led a focus group during the September debate, said McCain won points by being feisty and tough. “He was the John McCain of 2000 once again,” he said.

Dukakis, who lost his 1988 Democratic presidential bid, said that if he had to do it all over again, he’d spend less time rehearsing.

At that point in the campaign, “you’ve been saying the same thing over and over again for a year and a half -- you’re really bored out of your mind,” Dukakis said. “So what’s important here is to try to get the candidate to be effective but also fresh and spontaneous.”

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The forum

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The Saddleback Civil Forum, with presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain in back-to-back interviews with Pastor Rick Warren, will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. today.

It will air live on CNN, MSNBC, the Fox News Channel, C-SPAN, the Daystar Television Network and KDOC-TV. Live Web streaming of the event will be available at

saddlebackcivilforum.com,

readersdigest.com and myspace.com/impact.

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Obama will take the stage for the first hour. All general-admission tickets to the Lake Forest event have been distributed.


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