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Debate coach: Obama, Romney are top performers

By Todd Graham, Special to CNN
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Wed October 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Todd Graham: Campaigns are spinning but know that Romney, Obama are good debaters
  • On Romney's strengths: He's smooth, knowledgeable, good at pivoting from questions
  • On Obama's strengths: Stays cool, strong presence, good focus and reasoning
  • Graham: Both have weaknesses that are flip sides of strengths; expect a good 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) -- If you've been hearing the spin, the only reason to watch the inevitable train wreck of the upcoming debates would be to see just how inept both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are at debating. And that spin is self-criticism. Their own campaigns would have us believe that these two candidates can't piece together a complete sentence between the two of them.

But I'm here to tell you: It ain't so.

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These are two of the better presidential debaters we've witnessed, and I'm anticipating excellent debates. If you haven't watched Obama, I can assure you that he more than held his own four years ago in the debates against John McCain.

And if you haven't seen Romney, then take my word for it. He debated poorly in only two of his (almost 20) debates this past year. His game is consistently solid.

Opinion: The mistakes candidates make in debates

Romney's strengths:

-- Smooth. He's a real smooth smoothie. He can answer questions and present his arguments and make it look like child's play. After all, Romney bested Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, the Ricks (Santorum and Perry, although Perry is no Michael Phelps of debating) and the rest of the Republican candidates. If Romney could get through that minefield, he should be ready for Obama.

Todd Graham
Todd Graham

-- Knowledgeable. There were simply no debates where I thought Romney didn't have a firm grasp of the issue being debated at the time. He knows his stuff. Don't expect him falling prey to any gotcha moments.

-- Excellent front lines. His first lines of answers and opinions on every subject were outstanding. He'll be prepared. Count on it.

As members of the media prepare their television sets, University of Denver students Zach Gonzales, left, and Dia Mohamed stand in for the nominees during a dress rehearsal for the presidential debate Tuesday, October 2, in Denver. President Obama and Mitt Romney will square off during the first of three debates on Wednesday night. As members of the media prepare their television sets, University of Denver students Zach Gonzales, left, and Dia Mohamed stand in for the nominees during a dress rehearsal for the presidential debate Tuesday, October 2, in Denver. President Obama and Mitt Romney will square off during the first of three debates on Wednesday night.
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-- Backward-step-pivot-forward. Romney is masterful at this. He defends his position well (backward-step), but then takes a potential weakness and turns it into a strength (pivot-forward). A great historical example demonstrating this technique was from Ronald Reagan. When people were worried about him becoming president at his advanced age, he famously stated in a debate against Walter Mondale that, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Yeah, The Gipper understood the pivot-forward, and so does Romney.

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Obama's strengths:

-- Detachment. It's one quality that made him seem so presidential in the debates four years back. Obama didn't take it personally when his policy ideas were attacked, and this helped build him convey strong character.

-- Presence. He never let McCain rattle him. He came across, in every debate, as presidential. And poll after poll demonstrates the importance of poise in these debates. By the way, that includes when your opponent is speaking. Remaining in control of verbal and nonverbal communication at all times was a big strength of Obama's four years ago. He exuded a presidential quality.

Opinion: How Obama can win the debate

-- Focus and crystallize. My old debate coach always taught me to crystallize and go back to the major premise. Obama was excellent in the McCain debates because he kept the focus on the economy. It might not be the economy this time, but Obama will find his issue to highlight and stick to it.

-- Reasoning. Whatever he lacked in the McCain debates from experience, he made up for in sound arguments. In all the debates from four years ago, neither Obama nor McCain (nor Joe Biden for that matter -- did I leave anyone out?) came across as unfit intellectually to become president.

While I expect a good performance from both candidates, they've not been mistake free in previous debates.

Romney's weaknesses:

-- Smooth. He's a real smooth smoothie. Wait, what? Yeah, I said it was a strength, but it's also one of his biggest flaws. Ever heard the phrase "Slick Mitt?" Sometimes Romney comes across too polished. Almost fake. Watch for him to do two things that drive me crazy. The first is his awkward smile he projects at the end of his answers (or during his opponent's speeches). The second is when he says "thank you" at the end of his answers.

He misunderstands the format. He'll be all heated, telling us why (Obama in this case) is a poor president, and then he'll end with "thank you." Huh?

I thought you were angry until you blurted out "thank you." To me, this demonstrates insincerity. He's not answering the question, or debating his opponent. Instead, he's practicing his speeches. It's professional and polished, yes. But that's precisely what makes it impersonal and inappropriate for a debating format. I'm all for good manners, but in this case, "thank you" is noticeably out of place. Say it only at the end of the debate, after your closing argument.

Opinion: Debate is Romney's chance to rally

-- Debating from behind in the polls. When trailing in the polls, it's imperative to put your opponent on the defensive. Romney waited until Florida to do this in the Republican debates when he should have done it sooner. He was debating "not to lose," but that's only an effective strategy for the front-runner.

-- Extensions/second line of defense. This might have been Romney's greatest weakness. When pressed beyond his original answers on many topics, he simply couldn't defend himself effectively.

iReport: 10 questions you would ask at the presidential debate

Obama's weaknesses:

-- Detachment. Wait, what? Tricked you again. But it's true. Obama sometimes appears dispassionate in debates. And with our economy still recovering, this lack of passion may distance him from the audience.

-- Slow, stuttering approach. I'll admit that four years ago, I hadn't heard Obama speak in any debates. And his speech in general was quite awkward -- containing so many pauses that I thought I was back in time, sitting on the divan listening to my grandfather slowly spin his yarns while the phonograph quietly played in the background. I didn't like his speaking style then, (Obama's, not grandpa's) and I haven't changed my mind over the past four years.

While these canyon-sized pauses might assist in conveying a thoughtful approach, they often give the opposite signal ... that he doesn't know what he wants to say next. Obama's slow, stuttering speech doesn't showcase well in debates.

-- Long-winded answers. Obama never mastered sound bites and clips. Unfortunately, these debates have the tendency to be nothing but a series of sound bites, and that doesn't play to the president's hand. His extended answers sound like lectures. And nobody likes to be lectured, especially in a long-winded fashion.

Enjoy the debates. And oh, I almost forgot. "Thank you."

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

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