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The Four Traits of Highly Effective Debaters

Image via Marynchenko Oleksandr/

A presidential debate is a job interview. And voters look for certain traits in people applying to be president. In Tuesday night’s debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, look for four attributes of successful leadership — five if you count empathy.

Authenticity: President George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 largely because he was seen as comfortable in his own skin, while rival John Kerry was viewed as a flip-flopping opportunist. With the war in Iraq increasingly unpopular, Bush told voters that they might not always agree with him but they always would know where he stands. The same couldn’t be said for Kerry. On Tuesday night, voters will sniff out any whiff of phoniness, such as Romney trying too hard to empathize with a voter or Obama overcompensating for his sluggish first debate.

Credibility: Both candidates and their allies have knowingly made this a campaign of distortion, spin, and lies. There is little doubt that Obama and Romney will continue on this path. The question is whether they get tripped up by moderator Candy Crowley or the town hall audience. Don’t underestimate questions from the crowd; technology has made voters more informed than ever.

Humility: Will either candidate admit mistakes or failures? Will they listen carefully to the audience’s questions and respect these voters enough to give direct answers? Will they solicit advice from crowd members? A dose of humility goes a long way in life and in politics. This was the secret of President Clinton’s political success. It took great humility for Clinton to put himself in voters’ shoes and reflect the I-feel-your-pain empathy for which he is known.

Specificity: This had been a campaign devoid of detail. Both candidates claim to have plans to create jobs and save the country from catastrophic debt, but neither man has offered significant details. It’s time. Again, voters today are plugged into the news enough to know when details are dodged and questions ducked. It’s one thing to blow off a journalist’s questions; voters don’t think much of the media. But brazenly sidestepping a voter’s demand for specifics at a town hall is as politically dangerous as it is rude.

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(Image via Marynchenko Oleksandr/

Ron Fournier

Ron Fournier is the Senior Political Columnist and Editorial Director of National Journal. Prior to joining NJ, he worked at the Associated Press for 20 years, most recently as Washington Bureau Chief. A Detroit native, Fournier began his career in Arkansas, first with the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record and then with the Arkansas Democrat and the AP, where he covered the state legislature and Gov. Bill Clinton.

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