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McCain vs. Obama: Not like a high school debate

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McCain and Obama
Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama are set to debate Friday. The last time they met was at the ServiceNation Presidential Candidates Forum at Columbia University September 11, 2008 in New York City.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Four members of the St. Paul Central High School debate team stand in a semi-circle, papers in hand. Then coach Mike Baxter gives the signal, and the debaters all start talking extremely quickly at the same time.

Why do they speak so fast? 

"Because they're in a timed debate situation," Baxter said. "So they have to get as many words and arguments in in a certain amount of time as they can."

And why does everybody do it at the same time?

"This is just a drill for practice purposes, so I don't have to listen to them all do it individually," Baxter said.

Adrienne Christiansen
Professor Adrienne Christiansen studies political rhetoric at Macalester College in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

In competitive academic policy debate, speed is essential. The key is to make as many arguments and present as much evidence to back them up as possible, before the clock runs out. Then you go down, point by point, and try to refute as many of your opponent's arguments as you can. A judge assigns points to each side on that basis.

"So it really is an assessment of the kinds of evidence and arguments that are brought forward," said Adrienne Christiansen, who debated throughout her high school and college career. 

Christiansen was the head debate coach at the University of Minnesota when she was in grad school there. Now she's a professor at St. Paul's Macalester College, and studies political rhetoric. 

Christiansen said the way you win an academic debate is not the way you win a presidential one.

"They're as different as they could possibly be," she said.

"They're not trying to convince their opponent. They're not trying to disprove their opponent."

Whereas academic debates are a battle of ideas, presidential debates are a battle between two individuals.

"They're not trying to convince their opponent," said Christiansen. "They're not trying to disprove their opponent. They're simply trying to take their position, and make it look interesting and clever and insightful to the moderator and to the television audience."

If there's one thing presidential debates have in common with high school debates, it's time limits. McCain and Obama have two minutes to answer each question, followed by five minutes for back-and-forth discussion.

That's actually a much looser format than other recent presidential debates. Four years ago, John Kerry and George W. Bush weren't even allowed to  direct questions at each other.

For next week's vice presidential debate, the McCain campaign originally wanted there to be no question and answer session. But they finally agreed to 90-second answers, followed by two minutes for discussion.

Christiansen wishes there weren't so many rules.

"The very best presidential debate I ever saw was fictional," she said.

It was the final season of NBC's political drama "The West Wing." The debate was between the characters vying to succeed President Josiah Bartlett.

"They decided to just throw away what they had agreed to previously and just go at it, Christiansen said, "and as a result, I think we had a fantastic presidential debate, but of course one that was fiction."

Presidential debates have been a quadrennial television ritual since 1960. They used to be organized by the League of Women Voters, but the League got out of the business in 1988, after getting frustrated with the campaigns and all their rules. 

Since then a bipartisan organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates has negotiated the rules and formats with the leading campaigns.

CBS News producer Don Hewitt, who put together the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate, has become a fierce critic of the highly structured format of the debates.

"I always get credit for the first presidential debate. I actually deserve the blame for that," Hewitt said.

But Adrienne Christiansen said even though presidential debates lack the logical rigor of an academic debate, they're still an extremely valuable part of the election season -- one of the few times Americans can evaluate the two candidates side-by-side.

"We're really looking to see whether we can imagine these candidates leading us," she said. "Can we imagine that they speak on our behalf? Can we imagine that this is the kind of person who has the requisite skills and intellect and discernment abilities that reassure us sufficiently to get our vote?"

Christiansen said we probably wouldn't want our candidates to play by high school debate rules, either.