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October 1st, 2008
04:53 PM ET

10 rules for winning a debate

Workers prepare for Thursday's vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.

Workers prepare for Thursday's vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis.

Paul Begala
CNN Contributor

I have been involved in most of the presidential and vice presidential debates over the past 20 years.

I've done debate prep, been a spin doctor, convened the greatest comedy writers in Hollywood in a one-liner factory, even played George W. Bush for Al Gore's practice debates.

So now that I'm merely observing the debates as a CNN political analyst, I thought I'd offer our readers and the candidates my Top 10 rules for debates:

1. Debates are easy. It's a dirty little secret, but for all the hype, debates are easier than news conferences, town-hall meetings or in-depth, one-on-one interviews on Sunday morning television. You hit your mark, you deliver your lines, you try not to pass out or throw up, then you declare victory. So relax, candidates, you might even have fun.

2. 20 questions, 20 answers, one message. This is not "Jeopardy," where you're at the mercy of the topics Alex Trebek (or in this case, Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Tom Brokaw and Charlie Gibson) select. There is really only one question in an election: Why should we vote for you and not the other candidate?

Your answer to that question - your basic message - should be marbled throughout your substantive answer on everything from Waziristan to Social Security.

John McCain's basic message, it seems to me, is, "I'm experienced, Obama's too risky." Barack Obama's, on other hand, is, "I'm for change, McCain is more of the same."

Each answer to each question should be a variation on that theme. A good debater introduces or ends lots of answers with "That's another example of why we need change... (or experience, or whatever it is he or she is running on) ..."

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Filed under: Barack Obama • Joe Biden • John McCain • Paul Begala • Raw Politics • Sarah Palin
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Melvin

    I dont think this debate is going to show us anything we dont already know. We already know that when Sarah Palin is told what to say and how to say it she does very well. We also know that when she is asked questions that she must respond to on her own she is below average of most soccer moms. We know who she is . She is a person that rallies the most concervatives of republicans for her views. But unfortunately when she speaks unpromted even the most concervative republicans who truely care about the direction of this country do not trust Sara Palin as trhe leader of this country. John McCain better pray that she is prepared. Because if she ends up looking like a student who didnt read there homework assignment again, and tring to trick the teacher , down goes McCain!!!!

    October 2, 2008 at 11:13 am |
  2. Mary V., Salt Lake City, UT

    @ JANEY.......WELL SAID!

    For heaven's sake, people, we need intelligence in our leaders. A leader who can not name, quickly what she reads....... is inept.

    A person aspiring to be a leader who can not name another Supreme Court case besides Roe v. Wade......... is inept.

    We need a leader who knows a hell of a lot more than "Joe-six-pack"!

    Have we lowered our Nation's standards this LOW, that anyone can be the most powerful leader in the world?

    October 1, 2008 at 9:40 pm |
  3. Andrea

    I am so tired of hearing about how Biden better be careful in tomorrow's debates. That he should be easy on her and not be agressive. She should be held to the same standards as any other person....female or male! She is running for VP and why should Biden have to "take it easy" on her? She can dish it but she can't take it? This just proves that she isn't in the same league as the other canidates. I never ONCE heard anyone saying to take it easy on Hilary because everyone knows she can stand on her own!

    October 1, 2008 at 8:44 pm |
  4. Perry Scope

    Begala is right but isn't this the sort of thing an avid watcher of politics knows?

    October 1, 2008 at 8:18 pm |
  5. alice Llamas

    Once again Sarah Palin is unable to answer yet another question by Katy Couric.. Name another Supreme Court decision that you agree with and why? I quickly asked my son, a high school junior the same questions and with out a second of hesitation, he quoted Brown verses Board.... and was able toclearly explain it..... What is wrong with her? No we do not need a Joe sixpack for vice president or president.
    If McCain and Palin win this election then I will completely believe it was stolen just like the one eight years ago.

    FRUSTRATED

    October 1, 2008 at 7:26 pm |
  6. Gene Penszynski from Vermont

    The Republicans formula for winning the debate :

    Joe Six Pack, Lipstick and THATS AWSOME !

    With her expectations reduced to near 0% All Palin has to do is answer every question with one of those answers and the ignorant masses and Fox News will just squeal with joy !

    October 1, 2008 at 7:23 pm |
  7. Colleen

    So there is a chance Sarah Palin could come off looking almost intelligent?

    October 1, 2008 at 6:46 pm |
  8. Renee, NY

    The most important rule for winning a debate is having a bias moderator who wrote a book called
    "Praising Obama" for the VP debate.
    Anderson, will this fact be on the segment "Keeping Them Honest"??

    October 1, 2008 at 6:38 pm |
  9. Bryant

    It's a deabte. Ya get asked aquestion, and ya give your answer, plain and simple. With the McCain campaign protecting their VP candidate from interaction with the media, it's pretty damn hard ot ask them a question and get a straight answer. Daddy McCain's presence at Palin's during her CBS interview with Katie Couric was one of the most bizarre interviews I have ever seen. I don't know what was worse, Palin's inability to simply answer the questions, or Daddy McCain's accusation that his VP pick is the victim of a new spin concept known as "Gotcha Journalism" The sad thing is that the question in rference that was directed towards Plain was asked by an inquisitive voter in the audience, NOT a journalist!

    Mr. McCain, female and Independent voters aren't that stupid. Please don't insult their intelligence. When you take an average VP candidate, censor her speech, script her words, and stage her every move, you've created a very McPainful situation......

    October 1, 2008 at 6:32 pm |
  10. Sandra

    Debates are a waste of time. Candidates are judged by how polished they are. Town Hall meetings would be a better, but Obama is afraid to do them.

    October 1, 2008 at 6:25 pm |
  11. Janey

    I was on the debate team in High School and I know it is not difficult. What bothers me is how the Conservatives are portraying all this.

    1) What ia acceptable for every other candidate...male and female...is billed as "picking" on Palin. Now the Republicans are spinning it all to be "Gotcha journalism". It is pathetic.

    2) Biden gets quite a bit of press when he sticks his foot in his mouth...from all sides, mind you...but when Palin catches flack for the same, she is portrayed as the victim.

    I am an intelligent powerful American woman and I resent the idea that McCain's camp have dictated that the American people are not to be allowed full access to his VP choice. Why in the hell not?

    I am also furious that Palin is given such low expectations. That sets every woman in this country back at least 30 years.

    If she can not hold her own BEFORE the election, we have a right to know now.

    If McCain has to go back with her to hold her hand, speak for her and look like he has to protect her from a journalist after she sticks both feet in her mouth, that tells me that there is significant reason why her husband had so much power in the Alaska goverment...the Governor was not elected for her policies or knowledge.

    Alaska has 3 men for every woman in the state...some things are obvious to me because I have had friends and family in Alaska for more than two decades. It IS like another country.

    Not all women are happy that Palin is so incapable...it makes us all look bad.

    She is out of her league and it shows. While the big dogs are runnin down the road she is primping on the porch.

    She needs to put on her big girl panties and get over it.

    October 1, 2008 at 5:56 pm |
  12. larry

    The debate means little to nothing. It doesn't matter who is on the ticket with obama; people are not voting obama/biden they are voting obama.

    October 1, 2008 at 5:50 pm |
  13. Maureen / Newman, California

    Rule #1. Show up/Do not Reschedule

    October 1, 2008 at 5:45 pm |
  14. Gary Chandler in Canada

    OH add
    * he released his income tax, she has not
    * was he 'open' in the Keating 5; she is NOT with Wooten

    October 1, 2008 at 5:33 pm |
  15. Julie San Diego, CA

    Once again it's all about "winning".

    I'd like it to be about "leading".

    OK, voters. Let's examine the issue of TRUST. We're going to do a creative visualization here. Remember all those corny executive "team-building" experiences where you've supposed to let your co-workers – you know, the ones who've been backstabbing you all week – catch as you fall backwards?

    I can already hear some of the snickers.

    Well that's what we're doing ladies and gentlemen. We're asking which candidate do we trust to catch us?

    Now let's take the visutalization further. You're blindfolded, in the front seat of a car. You are going to drive this car blindfolded onto the highway, guided solely by the person sitting next to you who will be "leading" you

    ..."foot on the gas, put on your turn signal, make a right now, ease onto the brake..."

    Put on your blindfold and think about which voice you'd rather hear: Sarah Palin or Joe Biden.

    When it really matters, who do you trust?

    October 1, 2008 at 5:30 pm |
  16. Cindy

    If debates are so easy then some people sure don't make them look that way! In Saddleback Obama looked lost. He must not have studied hard enough.

    This debate should be interesting since most people think that they already know the outcome. Palin didn't get to be governor by sitting on her laurels or by having all of her opponents thrown off the ticket on technicalities so she should be fine.

    Cindy...Ga.

    October 1, 2008 at 5:30 pm |
  17. Gary Chandler in Canada

    Biden should lean the debate towards the issues that Palin disagrees with McCain on!
    Remember when she said she would 'change McCain's mind on drilling in Anwar'?
    * he supports birth control; her NOT
    * he supports funding pro choice groups; he NOT
    * He supports choice in cases of rape and incest; she does NOT
    * she right of Bush on Climate Control; he is LEFT of
    * she supports attacking Bin Laden in Pakistan; he 'retracted' her
    * she would shoot wolves from planes; he OPPOSED Bush on gun legislation (a real maverick!)
    * he believes polar bears are endangered; she does NOT
    * he supports sex education in schools; her NOT
    * her husband's last political party has 'hate America' in its sign up manifesto
    * he does not like ear marks, (never have been told why) ;she has LOTS in Alaska
    * He said she SOLD a jet on EBay; she says she TRIED to
    * He said '100% a fact she visited Iraq'; she did NOT
    * They should 'let her free' so we can add to the list
    Palin should debate McCain!!!
    BTW Obama and McCain agree on most of the above issues that Palin does NOT>

    October 1, 2008 at 5:24 pm |
  18. larry

    Paul, I'm surprised that you don't have 1st rule to be a debater who is being moderated by a supporter of your own party.

    October 1, 2008 at 5:22 pm |
  19. Lilibeth

    I can't wait for the debate, Paul! Bring it on!

    October 1, 2008 at 5:14 pm |
  20. Lamont austin

    This is why i wonder how people can say or think Mcclame won the debate, If your wrong on 80 to 90 percent of what was debated you loose....So it probably should be the "eleven rules toi winning a debate" wouldnt you agree?

    ARIZONA RON FROM TUCSON

    October 1, 2008 at 5:12 pm |
  21. Steve

    So you clowns think its news that Sarah palin won't divulge which news sources she reads but you don't think it's news that fgolks are crying foul about Gwen ifill's obvious conflict of interest? I'll check back to this site in 4 years to see if you get it yet.

    October 1, 2008 at 5:08 pm |
  22. Tony Sidaway

    Looks to me as if McCain was quite successful last month in masking Obama's message for change. Conversely, the same selection that signaled change (Palin) also seems to raise worries about his judgment and (since he's rather old) Palin's competence to take over as President. She's certainly galvanized a lot of the voters but she must have others very worried indeed.

    October 1, 2008 at 5:01 pm |
  23. Alheli Picazo ("Ala-Lee Picasso"), Calgary, Alberta, Canada

    Paul! I saw you on the Colbert Report the other night!! I was so stoked! You were great!! 🙂

    October 1, 2008 at 5:00 pm |