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For Obama—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The following commentary was published in The Hartford Courant on September 21, 2008.

For Obama
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10

As John McCain and Barack Obama hone their messages in the run-up to their first presidential debate Friday, two crack collegiate debaters — one from Yale, one from Harvard — offer their keys to victory.

It's game time.

This Friday the eyes of the nation will be on Ole Miss, watching you and Sen. McCain duke it out in the first presidential debate of the season. Polls show that a significant number of voters are waiting on the debates to make their final decision. Research indicates that the first presidential debate is the most influential. In the words of pollster John Zogby, the election could "break big" after the debates.

History confirms that the debates are make-or-break. Richard Nixon's ghostly pallor doomed him in 1960; Ronald Reagan's avuncular put-downs launched him in 1980. Bill Clinton's 1992 performance allowed him to feel our pain. Al Gore's 2000 debate performance made him the wooden star of " Saturday Night Live."

I've watched all 46 primary debates involving you or John McCain, and read or watched every presidential debate from the past 20 years. My take: You can win this, but it won't be easy.

Here are the three essential steps to victory, and the three potential pitfalls of defeat:

Victory Step 1: Make Bush McCain's running mate. If there's one thing voters should come away from the debate thinking, it's that Bush equals McCain. Talk about the "Bush-McCain tax cut," the "Bush-McCain energy policy," and the "Bush-McCain foreign policy." Put McCain on the defensive, and make him use up time explaining why he's not Bush.

Victory Step 2: Go substantive. You've been doing a good job lately of laying out policy proposals. Give short synopses of how you would respond to the problems confronting America. This will effectively silence the McCain line that you are all pomp and circumstance. Don't abandon the politics of hope, but don't put all your eggs in the basket of change.

Victory Step 3: Smile, stand tall and relax. You've got six inches on McCain, so you'll appear more presidential right from the start. High-def TV is your friend; it will make McCain look older. Crack a smile or two, and look thoughtful and calm while McCain answers his questions.

Pitfall 1: Don't discuss Sarah Palin. Joe Biden is your hatchet man; that's the vice presidential candidate's job. The McCain campaign has been trying to make this a referendum on Palin — don't let them. McCain is waiting to hit you for attacks on Palin (look at their attempts on the "lipstick" remarks). Forget about her; don't give him the opening.

Pitfall 2: Don't appear elitist. Al Gore got hit hard for his sighing and lecturing style in 2000. Thus far, you've managed to avoid that trap, but the constitutional law professor is always lurking in the background. McCain will probably go populist on you, challenging your connection to the common man. Don't take the bait. Stick to your guns and emphasize how your policies are better for America.

Pitfall 3: Don't dodge the questions. Don't even appear to dodge the question. Your responses should be structured — sound bite-analysis-sound bite. Lead with a straightforward response, then analyze your answer and close with a strong sentence. Stay away from the "above my pay grade" line you used when discussing abortion in Rick Warren's civil forum. Stay as far away as you can from similar "too cute" sidesteps.

Make no mistake about it: McCain is a worthy adversary. He did well in Rick Warren's Civil Forum this summer, the closest thing you've had to a debate. He scored points in the Republican primary debates, and he will definitely have a few prepared jibes ready to go.

McCain also has the formidable strength of being good in these situations but having low expectations. In contrast, the expectations are high for your performance, given your reputation as a great orator. That's not an insurmountable hurdle — you can meet and exceed those expectations.

So relax, stand tall, and go substantive.

Yes you can.

The debate, at 9 p.m. Friday at The University of Mississippi, will be moderated by Jim Lehrer, host of "The NewsHour" on PBS.

Aaron Zelinsky is a member of the Yale Law School class of 2010 and the editor of the Presidential Debate Blog (