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Foreign policy debate cut short -- for 'NCIS'?

By Todd Graham, Special to CNN
updated 7:08 AM EST, Mon November 14, 2011
Republican presidential candidates are introduced to the audience at the South Carolina Presidential Debate at Wofford College.
Republican presidential candidates are introduced to the audience at the South Carolina Presidential Debate at Wofford College.
  • Debate coach says debaters often fare poorly first time they tackle a topic
  • He says he was pleasantly surprised by first GOP debate on foreign policy
  • Graham: Strangely, only first hour of the 90-minute debate was televised
  • He asks whether airing "NCIS" was more important than "commander in chief" debate

Editor's note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has coached his teams to national championships and has been honored with the Ross K. Smith National Debate Coach of the Year award. Graham has analyzed presidential debates for five elections.

(CNN) -- Saturday night's GOP presidential debate at Wofford College in South Carolina was the first debate to focus exclusively on foreign policy, so my expectations of the candidates were as low as bottom-shelf booze, for two reasons. The first is that foreign policy is a huge topic. The breadth can be overwhelming, especially to candidates who have little direct experience with it.

And the second reason is that the candidates hadn't debated the subject yet. I've learned a painful lesson over my years of coaching intercollegiate debate teams. Even when I think our teams are well prepared and ready to debate a particular topic, they usually underperform their first time debating it in public.

Unfortunately, a debate can take on a life of its own by traveling in completely unexpected directions or subtopics. Couple that with the fact that there is a large difference between knowing your stance on certain positions and conveying those ideas to an audience in a persuasive manner on your first try, and you have a potential letdown every time a new topic is debated.

Todd Graham
Todd Graham

So I was pleasantly surprised when there were no major stumbles in Saturday night's debate. In fact, the debate had real potential, since there were major disagreements among the candidates. Among those stark differences:

Negotiating with the Taliban: Yes = Gingrich; No = Romney.

If needed, going to war with Iran: Yes = Romney, Gingrich, Santorum; No = Cain, Paul.

Use of waterboarding: Yes = Cain, Bachmann, Perry; No = Huntsman, Paul.

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Quickly pulling out of Afghanistan: Yes = Huntsman, Paul; No = Perry, Romney.

Giving foreign aid without preconditions (especially to countries like Pakistan): Yes = Bachmann, Santorum; No = Perry, Gingrich.

Tough talk was the theme of the evening -- Santorum hoping the U.S. was responsible for dead scientists in Russia and Iran -- but Gingrich drew laughs with his oxymoronic claims about these possible covert operations. In a televised debate (they have TV in Iran, right?), Gingrich called for a use of "maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program including taking out their scientists ... all of it covertly, all of it deniable."

I think Gingrich went to the same school of secrets as Brian Wilson, the closer for the San Francisco Giants, whose Taco Bell commercial shows him pretending to be a part of the Black Ops in order to eat some poor guy's XXL Chalupa. "Imagine this: I'm Black Ops. ... Where I show up nobody knows, because I'm Black Ops." Note to Newt and Brian: Black Ops works better when you don't announce it on television.

But the debate's potential quickly faded, since there was not enough time or depth on any of these issues. Heck, the candidates barely had enough time to simply state their positions. Obviously, the format played a role in this shallow debate. The other culprit? As usual, I blame Mark Harmon.

If you are going to televise a debate, then televise the whole thing. Last night's was the first debate on foreign policy, a topic that requires more than the pitiful 90 minutes allocated. But we didn't even get the Full Monty. CBS only televised the first 60 minutes of the 90-minute debate. I have never heard of a debate getting thrown off air before it was finished. Yet that is exactly what CBS did -- and it was the first debate this election cycle on free television. The message: "Go watch the conclusion on the Internet. We have more 'NCIS' to air."

I know, I know, we all want nothing more than to return to our regularly scheduled television programming. We hate it when it gets interrupted. And Mark Harmon is dreamy. I get it. But the hypocrisy was too much for me. Remember, this was a debate that CBS itself proudly (to get more viewers) titled the "commander in chief" debate.

Seriously, if CBS were running the country, all our enemies (there was a bushel basket of them noted by the candidates in the first 60 minutes of this debate alone) would have to do is wait until everyone was watching "NCIS" to attack. After all, apparently the commander in chief position isn't nearly as important.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.