Debate surrogates show no mercy
By: Katie Glueck
October 2, 2012 01:38 PM EDT
Ahead of Wednesday’s face-off between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, former debate stand-ins say that in practice sessions during previous elections, they aimed to force the candidates out of their comfort zones, hitting them with brutal arguments about their record and character — even trying to “crush” them.
“Oh, it’s a horrible process,” ex-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who played Sarah Palin in practice rounds with Vice President Joe Biden during the 2008 election, told POLITICO. “I say that as someone who has gone through a slew of debates myself. If it’s done right, you’re there in a room full of a bunch of people, it’s like having an opposition research memo read about you in front of everybody.”
Granholm, who channeled Palin in the mock session with Biden by wearing a red suit and sporting glasses, said she tried to throw the then-Delaware senator “off his game.”
“You have the full amount of the toughest questions asked about you” during practice rounds, she said. “Everything possible is out on the table. They want you to be able to react to it in an emotional way, in a defensive way, get it all out of the system, so at the debates, you have the right tone, the right response.”
This year, Sens. John Kerry (playing Romney in mock debates with Obama) and Rob Portman (in the role of the president in practice sessions with Romney) are tasked with preparing their teams for just about every occurrence that could unfold on that stage in Denver.
“Your goal is to make sure your candidate, when he or she walks out on that national stage for the debate, for them to feel like they’ve been there before,” said former Ohio Rep. Dennis Eckart, who served as a surrogate playing vice presidential hopeful Dan Quayle in debate prep with Lloyd Bentsen. “That the words their opponent in the debate utters, they’ve heard before, arguments they’ve heard before.”
For candidates, getting to that point sometimes requires painful practice, he said.
“When I’m playing my candidate’s opponent, I want to beat him bad,” Eckart said. “I want him to hear how tough it’s going to be, how good his opponent can be, so he or she works extra hard to put on the best debate performance they can.”
The goal when surrogates face off with their parties’ standard-bearers is to “crush,” said Steve Schmidt, a campaign veteran and senior adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign.
“The staff that is participating in the process, and the surrogate, the goal is for them to crush the candidate, particularly in early rounds, to get their attention, to focus on the need to be better prepared, more prepared,” he told POLITICO.
That’s how then-Sen. Bentsen came to deliver a knock-out blow in a 1988 vice presidential debate, according to people who worked with him at the time. In a moment that is still billed as one of the most memorable debate segments in modern campaign history, Quayle, President George H.W. Bush’s running mate, said onstage that he had as much experience in Congress as President John F. Kennedy did when he was running for president.
“Senator,” said Bentsen, who was running with Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis,“I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Bentsen was ready for the comparison after long sessions with Eckart.
“In debate prep when I started playing Dan Quayle with Sen. Bentsen, and made those references to John F. Kennedy, I remember the late Sen. Bentsen looking at me incredulously,” Eckart told POLITICO, adding that during “multiple rehearsals, I said, Sen. Bentsen, with all due respect, you’ve never responded to those Kennedy references.”
To prepare, Eckart had spent hours watching tapes of Quayle, and noticed that the Republican candidate drew the Kennedy parallel during media interviews. “Bentsen just looked at us and said, ‘I knew John F. Kennedy, he can’t claim to be John F. Kennedy,’” Eckart said. “We all looked around the table, sort of smiled and said, ‘Hey, that’s your answer.’ No one gave Bentsen those lines…the only credit I get is figuring out Quayle claimed to be like Kennedy, and Bentsen’s incredibly visceral reaction.”
For debate surrogates, reviewing video footage of the other side’s candidate is crucial to understanding the opponent they’re channeling. Eckart said he enlisted the Democratic National Committee to help ensure that he saw “every hour, every minute of every tape, wherever Dan Quayle was.”
“What I do and others do, if you’re going to do this well, is, you really want to try to get into the other guy’s head,” said Eckart, who is currently working on debate prep with several other Democratic campaigns, which he declined to name. “You want to think like him, anticipate his arguments, anticipate his rhetoric, try to figure out what the best point he thinks he can make to justify his campaign. And that’s true with what Romney and Obama are doing right now, trying to anticipate their best rhetorical shots and have responses for them.”
Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant with decades of campaign experience, served as Bentsen’s campaign manager, as well as a senior strategist to Vice President Al Gore’s presidential run in 2000.
“Eckart answered questions in almost the same language that Quayle wound up using,” Devine said. “He wasn’t just repeating the language of the stump speech. He actually got himself into the same situation that Quayle got himself into. That helped illustrate the openings Bentsen might have against Quayle.”
Granholm said that when she watched the 2008 vice presidential debate, she also saw a variety of scenarios that she and Biden had practiced play out onstage.
“I just had a feeling, going, ‘Oh, we got that right!’ ‘Oh, Joe hit that right outta the park!’” she said. “Right after the debate was over…Joe called, we both said, ‘Man, did we hit that right.’ We were feeling very good, anticipating the questions as well as how he would react and respond to her.”
This time around, people familiar with Portman and Kerry say both surrogates are stellar stand-ins for Obama and Romney, and have solid grasps of the opposing candidates. Portman assumed the role of Obama in McCain’s practice debates in 2008, and played the parts of Joe Lieberman and John Edwards as former Vice President Dick Cheney prepared in 2000 and 2004, among other roles in the last several campaigns.
Schmidt, who was also deeply involved in Cheney’s debate preparations in 2004, said the Buckeye State senator doesn’t hesitate to get into character.
“You want to pick someone who’s not going to get soft,” Schmidt said. “[Portman] was brutal and he was devastating. His performance in early rounds made both of them [McCain and Cheney] a better debater.
“…[Surrogates] need to spend a lot of time watching video tapes of style of the opponent to understand how to attack, how react, how to listen, how to score points,” he said, adding that they also “need to be totally familiar with the opponent’s record, the strengths, his weaknesses. He needs to be totally familiar with the side he’s helping, the record, strengths, weaknesses. Lastly, he needs to be absolutely willing to give offense to the nominee or incumbent president or incumbent vice president by going after them really hard in practice rounds.”
At a campaign stop in Ohio last week, Romney said Portman was doing just that.
“After the hour-and-a-half or so is over I want to, like, kick him out of the room he’s so good,” Romney said at a campaign stop in Ohio last week.
Bob Shrum, a senior adviser to Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid and a longtime Democratic campaign strategist, said the Massachusetts senator is primed to play Romney after their shared experiences with Bay State politics, coupled with Kerry’s time in the national spotlight as a candidate himself.
“I think he’s a superb choice,” Shrum said. “Of course, he knows a lot about Romney from Massachusetts. You’re not looking for someone who’s a physical duplicate…You’re looking for somebody who’s going to study the stuff, understand where the candidate is coming from, already knows some of where the candidate is coming from, and do a really good job being that person. I couldn’t think of anyone who would have been better [than Kerry].”