Washington — In the run-up to their first presidential debate on October 3, President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will be sparring with members of their own political parties in practice sessions, and Ohio Senator Rob Portman and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry have won the roles to impersonate Obama and Romney, respectively, as both candidates seek realistic stand-ins to pose as their rivals.
Debates are crucial to American voters because they provide the best chance to compare the candidates as they respond to tough questions and react to unscripted moments on live television. The pressure on both candidates can be overwhelming because a mistake or a wrongly worded response can instantly obliterate support. For the debate preparations, Portman and Kerry will seek not only to impersonate the presidential candidates, but to portray them at their best.
This will be Portman’s second performance as Obama. In 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain recruited the Ohio senator for the role, and Portman reportedly listened to audio versions of Obama’s books to help mimic his speaking style as part of his preparation.
Portman told Fox News August 27 that he is looking forward to the practice sessions with Romney.
"It's an opportunity to learn more about the other side, too, and what they're thinking, and makes you all the more committed to your point of view," he said.
Portman has portrayed the roles of both Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman in 2000, and vice presidential candidate John Edwards in 2004.
When playing the role of an opponent, “the key is to be tougher than they are," he told Fox.
Former President Bill Clinton can attest to this after his 1996 debate preparations against Republican challenger Bob Dole. Clinton’s campaign chose former Senator George Mitchell as a stand-in for Dole, and Clinton told U.S. public broadcasting in 1996 that Mitchell had been “ruthless.”
“The first debate we had in the preparation session he just killed me. You know, I walked in there; he had been preparing for weeks. He'd really done his homework, and I just kind of read the book in a cursory way, and he literally beat my brains out,” Clinton said.
Senator Kerry brings unique skills to his portrayal of Romney for Obama’s debate preparations. Not only has he gained firsthand experience as a presidential candidate in preparing for the 2004 debates, but he shares Romney’s background as a Massachusetts politician.
“There is no one that has more experience or understanding of the presidential debate process than John Kerry,” Obama’s senior campaign strategist, David Axelrod, told the Boston Globe on June 18. “He’s an expert debater who has a fundamental mastery of a wide range of issues, including Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts. He’s the obvious choice.”
For the October 11 vice presidential debate between Ohio Representative Paul Ryan and Vice President Biden, the Democrats have chosen Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen to portray Ryan.
Van Hollen has had plenty of interaction with Ryan as the ranking minority member on the House Budget Committee, which Ryan chairs, and he told Politico on August 20 that he is comfortable impersonating the Republican vice presidential candidate because he knows “how Paul Ryan presents his case.”
He said his job will be to “synthesize” the policy differences between Biden and Ryan during the debate preparations and “focus on the big issues” where the Republican and Democratic visions contrast.
The Republicans have not yet announced who will portray Vice President Biden, but in 2008 they chose vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, for the role.
DEBATE MODERATORS ALSO SCRUTINIZED
Along with finding realistic debate stand-ins, presidential campaigns focus on the debate moderators and try to anticipate the questions they will ask. This involves research on the individual journalists and the topics they have covered, and seeking to craft answers that will satisfy them.
For 2012, the Public Broadcasting Service's Jim Lehrer will be moderating the October 3 debate, which will focus on domestic U.S. issues. CNN’s Candy Crowley will moderate the October 16 town hall debate, and CBS News' Bob Schieffer will host the October 22 debate, which will focus on foreign policy. Crowley will be the first woman to moderate a presidential debate since 1992.
Ryan and Biden’s campaign staffs will turn their attention to ABC News' Martha Raddatz, who will be moderating their October 11 debate.
Both Democratic and Republican staffers will do their best to fully brief the candidates and hone their debating skills in the coming weeks, but there is also the danger of overpreparation, which can result in a poor performance.
President Ronald Reagan blamed the appearance of being tired and “out of it” during his first 1984 debate with Democrat Walter Mondale on having “more facts and figures poured at me for weeks than anyone could possibly sort out and use.” Reagan said he had spent much of the debate “wracking my brain so much for facts and figures,” according to PBS.org.
Likewise, after meeting with former President George H. W. Bush for debate preparations in 1996, Republican candidate Bob Dole told CNN he was done with his prepping.
''It's like filling up your tank with gas — it only holds so much,'' Dole said. ''I'm ready.''
The former president agreed. ''You get cluttered up with preparations,'' Bush said.