When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney met in their final debate night, they hoped undecided voters would be persuaded to vote for them.
But Will Repko had a different agenda.
He spent Monday night teaching about 40 area high school students to watch the debates as he does. Repko is the head coach of the Michigan State University Debate Team, and he taught students about the principles and strategies of debate as part of the nonpartisan 2012 Spartan Presidential Debate Series before they watched the third and final presidential debate, held in Boca Raton, Fla.
“The most important thing in a presidential debate is not to win or lose,” Repko said. “What they really want to do is avoid a silly, silly error.”
Since the debate focused on foreign policy, Repko taught the students the art of the pivot, in which a candidate takes any question from the moderator and turns his answer toward a topic he wishes to discuss. This was an especially important strategy for Romney in a foreign policy debate since he doesn’t have a record on international issues, he said.
“Gov. Romney is not going to want to talk a lot about foreign policy,” Repko said. “He’s going to start to talk about the economy instead.”
For example, Romney talked about America’s job to “defend freedom” when asked what the nation’s role is in the world, but soon used that to pivot to the problems at home.
“For that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home,” he said. “You can’t have 23 million people struggling to get a job.”
Obama responded that his administration and the work of the past four years have positioned the country to begin rebuilding.
“That’s what my plan does,” he said. “Making sure that we’re bringing manufacturing back to our shores. … Making sure that we’ve got the best education system in the world. … Doing everything we can to control our own energy.”
Obama chose to respond to Romney’s discussion of the home front, something suggested by Carly Wunderlich, the program and events coordinator for the Debate Team. In general, she said there are two choices for how to react to the pivot: Call out the candidate for not staying on the rules, or take on the new topic.
“The first choice is to fight it,” she said. “If you’re President Obama, you’re going to need to engage in the pivot a little bit.”
Repko also talked about the importance of pre-rehearsed lines, designed to get a reaction and pull hits on YouTube the next day.
“The candidates intentionally practice certain lines,” he said. “They might be funny, they might be clever, they might be cheesy.”
Obama executed one of the most memorable of these likely “pre-rehearsed” lines, responding to Romney’s accusation that the U.S. Navy has the fewest ships since 1917.
“We also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed,” Obama said. He went on to remark that military prowess is “not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships.” Instead, it’s about “our capabilities.”
Obama achieved another zinger by digging on Romney’s March comment about Russia being the “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because … the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” he said.
In both March and again during the debate, however, Romney drew the distinction between foe and threat, saying that a nuclear Iran is the biggest threat to the world.
The Spartan Presidential Debate Series also included stops in Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas to discuss debate techniques with high school students.