Area debate coaches analyze style of presidential town hall
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
10/16/12 at 11:10 PM
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While others are arguing over who won Tuesday night’s presidential debates, one group of Oklahomans was looking at the event with a professional, stylistic eye.
To analyze Tuesday night’s nationally televised showdown between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the Tulsa World turned to local experts in verbal rhetoric — scholastic debate coaches — to discuss not who won or who was right, but how the two candidates did at making their case.
“When people ask you who won a presidential debate, I think that’s the wrong question,” said Ashley Bowser, who has coached several state champions from Broken Arrow High School since 2001. “I think what you have to ask is, ‘Who left a better impression?’ ”
Bowser said he was impressed by the high tension of the evening, with both sides passionately competing for time and to make their points strongly.
“It got pretty tense,” he said.
Both debaters had issues to overcome, Bowser pointed out. Obama needed to overcome his lackluster performance in the first debate on Oct. 3, and Romney needed to deal with a public impression that he is stiff and impersonal.
Both candidates did well in those goal, Bowser said.
In both cases, the arguments were organized and well-presented, but neither candidate took full advantage of the evening’s town hall format to personalize his presentation with evocative stories of real people, a typical hallmark of good town hall debates, he said.
“I think that’s probably a critical error on both parts,” Bowser said.
Bartlesville High School’s Linda Shipley, a debate coach for 33 years, said she was frustrated by the evening’s format because it provided less time for the candidates to drill into topics in detail, as was possible in the first debate and in the vice presidential debate last week.
Obama’s performance was obviously improved, but Romney also seemed to have sharpened his game, Shipley said.
“I thought both of them were much better than they were two weeks ago,” she said.
Jackie Massey, who has coached the University of Oklahoma’s debate team to six national Cross Examination Debate Association championships in 10 years, said Romney came across with a sense of determination and excitement, whereas Obama tried to present himself as Socratic and patient.
Obama showed some rhetorical strength with his use of alliteration, but Romney also scored style points with specific examples packed in rapid-fire sentences.
Massey said he, too, was frustrated with the evening’s format and the way it allowed both candidates to avoid logical difficulties and rely on rehearsed bits.
“It doesn’t seem like debate so much as trying to get said what they were going to say anyway,” Massey said.
Whoever won the evening’s arguments, one of the winners may have been debate itself.
Before the first presidential debate, Shipley’s students were highly excited, she said, and she suspects that the entire series of political discussions may spur more student interest in debate.
“They will talk about it, and they will bring their friends into the activity,” she said.
A debate booklet is held up after the second presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Tuesday. DAVID GOLDMAN/Associated Press