Somewhere within the confines of a golf resort near the Virginia
coast, President Obama has been working at a ritual of modern politics:
Rather than hitting the links at Kingsmill Resort in
Williamsburg, Va., Obama spent the past three days sharpening lines and
rehearsing arguments on a mock debate set designed to replicate the one
he will find Tuesday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
"He's calm and energized and just looking forward to getting to New York" on Tuesday, said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
opponent Mitt Romney made similar debate preparations nearly 600 miles
away, at a Marriott near his Boston-area home. Spokeswoman Amanda
Henneberg said the former Massachusetts governor is looking forward to
the town-hall-style debate because "it will give him a chance to speak
directly with American voters who have been dealing with the Obama
Both candidates put the final touches on their plans Monday, and will square off Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.
In early September, Romney held a debate camp in Vermont. The
Republican nominee is the latest in a long line of candidates who have
trained for debates close to home, including incumbent presidents who
have used the White House and Camp David.
Others, like Obama,
prefer to take practice on the road, setting up debate camps at private
homes, hotels or resorts across the country, often in battleground
The goal: to "get away from it all" and focus on the task at hand.
years ago, Obama did debate camp near major cities in key battleground
states: Tampa; Asheville, N.C.; and Toledo, Ohio. Last month, he spent
three days in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, before his first debate
polls, including those done by CBS and CNN, awarded that Oct. 3 contest
to Romney. That debate, plus polls that now reflect a dead-heat
presidential race, put more pressure on Obama as he practiced for Round
Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV,
said the value of debate camps can be explained by the run-up to the
very first set of televised presidential debates: John Kennedy vs.
Richard Nixon in 1960.
Nixon prepared by studying briefing books;
Kennedy had aides fire questions at him. Many observers believe Kennedy
got more out of the debates - on all-important television, anyway. Radio
listeners preferred Nixon.
In any event, Schroeder said, "it was known that Kennedy had done a little more practice, and Nixon had not."
presidential debates were revived in 1976, aides to President Ford set
up a duplicate stage in the White House, complete with podiums and a
table for questioners. They also put a television monitor at the podium
of his opponent, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, playing videotape
of various Carter interviews.
Four years later, Ronald Reagan,
seeking to evict Carter from the White House, held mock debates at a
country estate in Virginia. His sessions included a live stand-in for
Carter, Michigan congressman and future Reagan budget director David
Stockman. Schroeder joked that Reagan, the actor-turned-politician, "was
the first to do it on location, so to speak."
have preferred to practice in familiar settings close to home. Walter
Mondale, challenging Reagan in 1984, did debate prep in the dining room
of his house in Washington, D.C. George H.W. Bush, Reagan's running mate
in 1980 and 1984 and a nominee himself in 1988, used the vice
president's official residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington.
1996, Bob Dole prepped at his condo in South Florida, while George W.
Bush utilized his ranch in Crawford, Texas, four years later.
Clinton, in both 1992 and 1996, picked debate camps near the sites of
the debate, with time zones being one consideration. Like Obama this
year, Clinton practiced in Williamsburg, Va., for a town-hall debate in
nearby Richmond in 1992.
Like Obama, previous candidates have
pitched debate camps in swing states, seeking to mix a little
campaigning with practice. In challenging President George W. Bush in
2004, John Kerry held debate camps in Wisconsin and New Mexico.
Hall Jamieson, a political scientist who has written frequently on
debates, said one goal of preparation is to simulate the debate setting,
getting candidates used to the idea of the format and presentation. "We
know that being comfortable in a setting minimizes anxiety," she said.
addition to honing lines and arguments - and expressing them in a
television-friendly way - debate camps can help teach candidates what
not to do, said Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center
at the University of Pennsylvania.
That includes what candidates do when not talking.
it's George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in 1992 or Al Gore's
long-winded sighs in 2000, these "non-verbal reactions" can decide
debates, Jamieson said.
Incumbent presidents have the advantage of
practicing at a real camp - Camp David, the presidential retreat in the
Catoctin Mountains in Maryland.
In fact, Obama is scheduled to be at Camp David next weekend, ahead of the third and final debate on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.