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Friday 18 January 2019

Which candidate will give us that 'You're no JFK' moment?

"SENATOR, you're no Jack Kennedy" is a famous political quote from an American vice-presidential debate in 1988.

The debate was between Democratic candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Republican candidate Senator Dan Quayle. The 'Jack Kennedy' was, of course, John F Kennedy.

After Quayle became George Bush's vice presidential running mate, questions were raised about his age so he'd been routinely been comparing himself to Kennedy in terms of experience. He did it again in the debate and Bentsen landed the killer blow.

Ultimately the Bush/Quayle ticket won but since then, the words "You're no Jack Kennedy'' have become a part of the political lexicon as a way to deflate politicians or others who think too highly of themselves.

The line and how it was delivered proved how devastating and how effective television debates can be for candidates.

This presidential election will be won and lost on Irish TV. News reports, current affairs shows and -- crucially -- television debates are how most voters will see and hear the candidates.

Frisson

Yes, it is often the unscripted things that cameras capture on the campaign trail that provide for the most amusing and talked about moments.

But there's nothing quite like live television, and the promise that something could go horribly wrong for the wannabes, while you have a ringside seat.

A candidate's gaffes, slip-ups, hesitations. Profuse sweating, trembling hands, confusion or squirming answering a question; these are all must-watch TV. And when it's live and unfolding in real time before your eyes? Well, that's TV gold.

Starting tonight with interviews on The Late Late show, continuing with TV3's Big Presidential Debate next Tuesday and with possibly another RTE debate, these appearances will give the undecideds a chance to see the candidates head to head in the unforgiving, hostile and unflattering environment that is the TV studio.

The heat from the lights, the crew talking through their headsets to people you can't see. "Standby. Five, four, three, two, one. We're live."

Those words can send a frisson of panic through the most experienced of broadcasters. And there's no escape.

Right now there is tortuous thrashing out of elements such as handshakes, photos, positioning of podiums, and eyelines for monitors. In one notorious instance Garret FitzGerald refused to pose for a photograph with Charlie Haughey before the 1982 leader's debate.

Advisors are in a flap about the format. Will there be pre-determined questions? How will rebuttals work? How long will the candidates have to 'sell' themselves to the viewers? Where will they be positioned and beside whom? Will Vincent be in Tonight With Vincent Browne, mode or will he be reined in, in the same way he was when anchoring the leaders' debate for the General Election?

Political advisors will be pouring over details such as what colour tie or suit to wear, where to put their hands, how they use their hands and their expression.

What will they say to provoke one another and what will they focus on, to get away from issues they don't want to tackle themselves?

The battleground of the TV debates will be trying to come within a donkey's roar of the appeal that Mary McAleese has.

The candidates who come off badly, can perhaps take solace from the fact that the losers in the TV debate don't always ultimately lose.

In the 1997 leader's debate, Taoiseach John Bruton was deemed victorious over then Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern. Fianna Fail, however, won the election. As did Dan Quayle's team.

And neither was a Jack Kennedy.

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