How to win a war of words

Times Staff Writer

Tonight’s presidential debate in Hollywood between the two remaining major Democratic contenders, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, will mark their first one-on-one faceoff of the 2008 campaign.

With the debate participants reduced to two, the dynamics have changed. For one thing, the exchanges can take on a more personal edge.

The candidates “have to be very cautious to keep their emotions in check,” said Thomas Hollihan, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication who has written about presidential debates. “The public doesn’t like nasty.”


At the same time, he said, viewers will get the opportunity “to focus on the differences between these candidates” -- as well as on how the two Democratic contenders distinguish themselves from the Republicans on issues such as the war in Iraq.

What does each candidate need to do to win? To pick up some tips, The Times talked to Hollihan and another political communication expert, Craig Smith, a Cal State Long Beach professor and Republican political consultant.

This is some of their advice:

For Clinton

Dress to convey authority: “She’s been coming in with a scarf around her neck; she’s been wearing pearls. That’s all nice, but it doesn’t convey the kind of authority that a suit does for a woman,” Smith said.

Don’t get mean: In the Democrats’ South Carolina debate, “when she made the comment about him working for a slumlord, it really came off as mean-spirited,” Smith said. “It’s something a man can get away with easier than a woman can. That’s unfair, but that’s the way things are. If a woman does it, it seems bitchy. If a man does it, it seems masculine.”

Stay upbeat: “The only time she’s not been effective is when she seems to get defensive or when she has permitted herself to come across as a little bit whiny,” Hollihan said, adding: “She gained from the use of a feminine style.”

Emphasize competence: “When she says she’s going to be ready on Day One, we know what she’s saying -- she’s saying, ‘He isn’t going to be ready on Day One, and I am, therefore I’m more competent.’ . . . She makes a mistake when she tries to swing over to the change side -- it fuzzes up her message,” Smith said.

Talk to the audience: “John Kennedy did that so well against Richard Nixon in 1960. Richard Nixon was a trained college debater, and he kept going after Kennedy. Kennedy just ignored Nixon and went for the audience. She’s got to do the same thing. She’s spending much too much time pointing her finger at Barack Obama, getting in his face. It just doesn’t look nice,” Smith said.

For Obama

Attack Bill, not Hillary: “Go after Bill Clinton, the man who is not in the room, because it indicates that by electing Hillary, you’re not making a change. What you’re doing is returning to the old days with Bill Clinton, and a lot of people don’t want that,” Smith said. “He needs to be careful about attacking a woman. That’s seen as an unmanly thing to do.”

Turn Clinton’s experience into a liability: Obama should emphasize that “Hillary voted for this war, Hillary voted for the Patriot Act, and you can’t trust her to change it. We really need a new form of politics,” Hollihan said.

Get to the point: Although Obama’s debate performance has gotten much sharper, Hollihan said, “He tends to make these platitudinous statements rather than the direct, explicit short arguments. He’s great in a stump speech where he can be motivational, but he hasn’t been quite as strong on the quick turnaround or the quick responses.”

Keep cool: To offset questions about his lack of experience and relative youth, Hollihan said, Obama “has to come across as collected, calm and confident.”