Five things we’re watching for in tonight’s Vice Presidential debate

Normally, the vice presidential debate hardly matters, but in light of the close polls following last week’s debate between the two presidential candidates, the spotlight will likely be brighter than usual on Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Rep. Paul Ryan when the two square off at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky tonight.

Here are five things we'll be watching for in tonight's vice presidential debate.

1. It’s the questions, stupid. Last week moderator Jim Lehrer said he ran out of time before he could ask about several issues important to Americans. This week, ABC News Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz will moderate the 90-minute vice presidential debate that will cover international and domestic policies. It will be divided into nine segments of about 10 minutes each. Raddatz will ask an opening question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Raddatz will use the remaining time to further probe the candidates' positions on the topics.

Raddatz took to Twitter last month to solicit questions from her followers; leaders representing Hispanic, Asian American, Native American and black journalism associations also sent questions to Raddatz or to the Commission on Presidential Debates to be forwarded to the moderator. The National Association of Black Journalists submitted the same 15 questions on domestic policy that they sent to Lehrer, plus eight more questions on foreign policy, according to Sonya Ross, chair of the organization’s Political Journalism Task Force.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent queries about women’s reproductive rights as well as other topics and then asked supporters to press Raddatz to ask them during the debate. Raddatz declined to respond to Poynter on whether she was in receipt of all these questions and whether she would ask them.

2. How the candidates frame their answers. While Lehrer, a longtime anchor of PBS and veteran moderator, was roundly criticized by both liberals and conservatives for his performance, Romney and Obama did not always do their job in answering the few questions the PBS executive editor and veteran moderator did ask. Christopher Medina, the director of the Tolson/Washington Forensic Society at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas – which inspired the critically acclaimed 2007 movie, “The Great Debaters” starring Denzel Washington – said the moderator has very little to do with a candidate getting real with the audience.

“It’s how the candidates frame their responses to the questions themselves,” he said. “The questions typically should not be leading questions because then a moderator is not doing their job if they are leading a candidate one way or the other. Really a moderator wants to ask very open-ended questions so that they can understand a candidate’s true response.”

3. Practice. Practice. Practice. Medina said getting the candidates to "be real" is actually more about practice. “Connecting with an audience is a debater’s number one job,” Medina told Poynter in a telephone interview. “The audience has to understand what you’re trying to convey to them. If you don’t do that, then you will lose the debate much like President Obama did. He did not connect with the audience whatsoever. Mitt Romney did a much better job with telling stories, which connects with an audience. With the vice presidential debate, what the candidates will have to do is practice, practice, practice connecting with an audience.”

4. Keeping it orderly. While the moderator may have little to do with how the candidates connect with the audience and answer questions, it is incumbent upon him or her to keep order. The moderator got rolled over by the candidates last week and that can’t happen in the other debates, Medina said.

“Lehrer was supposed to keep time and keep the candidates in check in terms of the time it took them to respond. He did not do that, and because he did not do that the candidates started becoming more and more aggressive because they knew if they took more time that they would be allowed to do that. Right off the bat from the first two questions when they took more time than they were allotted, the moderator did nothing,” Medina said. “The candidates felt they could go ahead and take as much time as they wanted and steamrolled the moderator.”

The pressure is on for Raddatz and the other moderators to maintain order.

5. Higher viewership. Last week’s presidential debate had a viewership of about 67.2 million, according to Nielsen ratings. Four years ago, Nielsen reported a viewership of 69.9 million for the vice presidential debate between Biden and Republican nominee Sarah Palin. More viewers are expected to watch the vice presidential candidates go head-to-head tonight, according to "The Prospector," the student newspaper at The University of Texas-El Paso.

Medina expects this vice presidential debate to be more highly watched because of the attention the election is getting. And David Jackson of USA Today reminds readers vice presidential debates usually produce the most memorable moments. Jackson counts such catch-phrases as Bob Dole’s 1976 comment about ‘Democrat Wars,’ ‘Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,’ uttered by then-Senator Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, and Admiral James Stockdale’s opening ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ in 1992.

Americans might not vote based on the vice presidential candidates, but they -- and journalists -- may tune into this debate for the sheer entertainment value alone.


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