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Early debates offer risks and revelations

Watch the early presidential debates as an opposition researcher would. You may find a valuable nugget hiding in plain sight.
former US Senator Mike Gravel speaks at
Former Sen. Mike Gravel speaks during  the debate among Democratic presidential contenders last Thursday. "Some of these people frighten me," he said of his rivals for the nomination.Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images
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Early presidential debates always include some candidates who, one can be reasonably certain, won’t be president of the United States.

A long-shot contender such as Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., best known for his hard-line stance on illegal immigration, can use a debate to challenge the front-runners on an issue they might prefer not to define in stark terms.

In order for voters to discover who he is, a maverick needs to take risks in a debate, such as Thursday's Republican face-off at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., broadcast at 8pm ET on MSNBC.

In last week’s Democratic presidential scrum on MSNBC, former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio showed the effect, both disorienting and invigorating, that maverick candidates can have on the more risk-averse front runners.

“Some of these people frighten me — they frighten me,” Gravel blurted out, referring to his fellow Democratic contenders.

Gravel's jarring effect
“When you have main-line candidates that turn around and say that there's nothing off the table with respect to Iran, that's code for using nukes, nuclear devices,” said Gravel, who last held elective office in 1981 and, until now, hasn’t been well known even among Democratic activists.

Gravel’s mention of “nukes” was a jarring reminder, amid carefully phrased statements from the other contenders, of how dangerous the U.S.-Iran confrontation is.

A few minutes later, given an opening by Gravel’s statement on Iran, Kucinich got into a scrap with Sen. Barack Obama, telling the Illinois senator, “You're setting the stage for another war.”

Obama sought rebuttal time and said, “I think it would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran.”

He added that Iran “potentially can place a nuclear weapon into the hands of terrorists” and “that is a profound security threat for America and one that we have to take seriously.”

A mutually beneficial skirmish
This exchange may have benefited both Obama and Kucinich: Obama got to display a sober and hawkish foreign policy approach, and Kucinich got attention, a precious commodity for a lesser-known candidate.

Just as the Kucinich-Obama spat was potentially useful to both men, a similar dynamic was at work in a 2000 debate among five Republican contenders a few days before the New Hampshire primary.

Again, it was the long-shot contender who rhetorically shook his fist in the face of a top-tier candidate, as conservative orator Allan Keyes provoked Sen. John McCain to anger.

McCain had said that if his 15-year old daughter became pregnant, that he, his wife and his daughter would decide whether she should get an abortion.

“If your daughter came to you and said she was contemplating killing her grandmother for the family inheritance, you wouldn’t say let’s have a family conference,” Keyes chided McCain.

McCain fires back at Keyes
The Arizona senator shot back, “I will not draw my children into this discussion.”

He was offended enough by Keyes to revert to the topic later in the debate. “I want to tell you something,” he said to Keyes. “I’ve seen enough killing in my life. I know how precious human life is. And I don’t need a lecture from you.”

The clash allowed McCain to underscore his appeal to libertarian-minded Republicans, independents, and cross-over Democrats, who could re-register and vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary.

McCain was, in effect, saying that while he opposed abortion, he also valued family privacy and the right of parents to take part in a fateful decision for their daughter.

Apart from the opening that that mavericks can give front-runners to convey messages to voters, there’s another reason to play attention to early debates.

Revealing a vulnerability
Sometimes a leading candidate’s vulnerability is revealed in a debate among contenders of his own party.

Once he has won his party’s nomination, the opposing side uses that vulnerability in the fall campaign.

The most telling example of this came in 1988.

On April 13 of that year, a week before the New York primary, Democratic contender then-Sen. Al Gore, was trailing front-runner Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis in the delegate tally.

Gore squared off with Dukakis and Jesse Jackson in a debate. It was clear Dukakis would almost certainly win the nomination. Gore had, at best, a chance to use the debate to jar the front-runner into making a costly error.

Gore decided to raise the issue of a Massachusetts program that Dukakis had presided over which allowed convicted violent felons, even those serving life sentences without parole, to get weekend furloughs from prison.

Gore's fateful furlough question
Saying that several prisoners fled while on furlough and two committed murders, Gore asked Dukakis wryly, "Would you advocate a similar program for federal penitentiaries?"

Dukakis, who’d built his campaign on his reputation for being a competent executive, reacted with annoyance: “Al, the difference between you and me is I have to run a criminal justice system. You never have.”

“Could we get an answer?” Gore asked.

Dukakis replied that Gore already knew that "we've changed our policy. There will not be a furlough for lifers."

But Gore wouldn’t relent — repeatedly needling Dukakis, trying to get him to answer his original question.

There’s no evidence the skirmish had an effect on the outcome: Gore finished a poor third in the New York primary, as Dukakis won it, and went on to clinch the nomination.

But Republicans were keenly watching that New York debate.

'Fell into our lap'
Jim Pinkerton, research director for the GOP presidential candidate Vice President George Bush, told the Washington Post a few months later, “That's the first time I paid attention. I thought to myself, `This is incredible' ... It totally fell into our lap.”

In the fall, both the Bush campaign and a group called the National Security Political Action Committee ran ads on the Massachusetts furloughs, with latter focusing on convicted murderer Willie Horton who’d raped a woman while on furlough.

“I never mentioned Willie Horton,” Gore said four years later, explaining his role in that April debate. “I didn’t know his name, much less what his race was. I raised the issue of crime.”

He blamed the Republicans for focusing on Horton, a black man, and making “a blatantly racist appeal.”

The lesson remains: Watch the early debates as an opposition researcher would. You may find a valuable nugget hiding in plain sight.