(By Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian)
With so many candidates participating, it is unlikely that these early debates will make or break a candidacy unless, of course, one of them makes an unfortunate slip of the tongue as Sen. Kerry and Gov. Allen did in recent months. And since everyone is aware of the dangers of this, they are all likely to be so careful, so girdled, that they will seem even more programmed than usual. Nor is anyone likely to take on someone else in a hard-hitting way since all are aware of the polls suggesting people are sick of attack politics.
Best advice would be to couch subtle attacks in humor such as Reagan’s great comeback to the question about his age when he promised he would not exploit Mondale’s youth and inexperience. What we should be looking for at this juncture are clues to temperament and character – the degree of self confidence, the willingness to admit not having a complete answer to a question, the capacity to make an emotional connection with the audience, the ease of language, the inclination to treat rivals with respect, the readiness to stake out positions that may not be popular among core interest groups in the party but which represent hard truths and deep convictions.