Matthew Norman: If you want politics with real drama, look to America

The presidential debates represent the purest distillation of democracy there is
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The Independent Online

At last it begins. After all the months of sparring, feinting, showboating and shadow-boxing, after all the conflated controversies about lipstick on pigs, God'n' guns for hicks and sex education for kids, we are on the verge of what every self-respecting big fight MC knows as the main event.

Tomorrow night at 8pm Central Daylight Time (1am Saturday GMT), in a University of Mississippi hall, the two wannabe leaders of the free world will stride on to a stage and, with what nonchalance they can muster while their stomachs flip like gymnasts on the mat, take position behind their lecterns for the first of their three Presidential Debates.

The stakes need little spelling out. Following a mildly successful Democratic convention and the emergence of Governor Palin as potential Republican dea ex machina, their respective bounces have deflated and the race is stuck where it was back in May, far too close to call. Until the thunderstorm broke over Wall Street, many sound judges in the United States thought it was over; that, thanks to Ms Palin's genius for reminding swing voters that they regard Obama as a metrosexual wuss styled directly after Dr Niles Crane, John McCain had it sewn up. Now the momentum has reversed, and Obama has a small but growing lead thanks to McCain's bemused and chaotic response to the fiscal crisis, and the majority belief that a Republican party from which he cannot quite distance himself is responsible.

Yet a small lead will not, alas, be enough for the plucky little hopester from Illinois. Factoring in the Bradley Effect (named after a black candidate for the governorship of California whose exit poll advantage did not survive the counting of actual votes), it is reckoned that Obama must be six points ahead in the opinion polls to be dead level. And so, as those portentous network anchors never tire of reiterating, the race is deadlocked. God knows what further twists and turns the campaign might yet produce, but the one foreseeable element with the power to unlock it is this trio of debates.

Small wonder, then, that Senator Obama is currently closeted with his team of trainers. Mr McCain, widely perceived as the superior debater, isn't bothering with too much prepping, but Obama is secluded in a Florida "debate camp", boning up on foreign policy (the theme of this first 90-minute debate; the economy comes next month), anticipating the moderator's questions, and perhaps above all else fine tuning his tone.

The precedent here, as so often, comes from the last north-eastern liberal to take the White House. Fans of The West Wing will fondly recall the episode, cunningly entitled Debate Camp, in which President Josiah Bart-lett endures the torture that Obama is suffering today in preparation for his one and only debate with Governor Rob Ritchie, a plain-talkin', no-nonsense far right wing good ol' boy modelled, not too opaquely, on George W Bush.

Bartlett's main problem was his intellect. At the time the episode was broadcast, in what may strike you as a deliciously nostalgic irony, being a Nobel economics laureate was precisely the sort of poncy, foreigner-conferred honour calculated to earn the scorn and mistrust of Americans. "No one likes the smartest kid in the class," was the mantra of senior staff fretful of his tendency to come the didact with a populace that favours clubbable idiocy over professorial wisdom.

This, one assumes, is the lesson being drummed into Obama at camp. Unquestionably the smartest kid in the class, albeit that it's a class of two and the other pupil often appears unsure whether he's Arthur or Martha, let alone whether they're Sunni or Shia, he must eschew his natural verbose, carefully nuanced style in favour of unleashing "zingers" aimed less at the 40-50 million Americans watching live than the 100-125 million whose exposure to the debate will be restricted to the recorded highlights.

With no military experience of his own, up against a war hero whose gauche arm movements act as celebrants of his stoic stint as a Hanoi Hilton guest, striking the correctly reassuring tone on foreign affairs will be far from easy. Iraq, the issue that jet propelled his candidacy, is defused by the surge's apparent success, while the threat that Iran's nuclear programme is perceived to pose Israel is tailor made for McCain's simplistic bellicosity. This is a battle Obama would, you assume, be overjoyed to escape with a draw, saving the haymakers for the economic debate to come.

But a presidential debate isn't really, with apologies to Tony Benn, about the ishoos. John Kerry murdered George Bush on those in all three of theirs, and it did him no good because he came across as effete. Al Gore went too far the other way to evade the elitist slur, storming over to invade Mr Bush's space, and came across as phoney and faintly deranged. The high wire act for Obama is persuading the public that he isn't the snotty, arugula-chomping, hug-an-Ahmedinajad, uber-liberal nancy his enemies would have them believe, but without giving the morons on Fox News the chance to insinuate that he is the "angry black man" who would alienate swing voters already inclined to vote against their own economic interests on unspoken grounds of race.

An excellent article posted on a US blogging site posits that the ultimate role model here isn't JFK, Ronald Reagan or even Jed Bartlett (who destroyed Ritchie with controlled aggression), but Shakespeare's Mark Antony. "I am no orator, as Brutus is," he says in the Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech, turning rhetorical weakness into strength. "But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man."

Neither candidate is genuinely one of those. McCain affects to be, but the Straight Talk Express has been permanently derailed by the vicious mendacity of his campaign ads and the risible flip-flopping on the economy. Obama has made no such pretence, but has lately developed a punchier, less grandiose oratorical style. In the absence of calamitous error in substance or tone of the sort Debate Camp exists to prevent, whoever does the better job in playing the plain blunt man should emerge from the debate season with one foot, possibly one and a half, in the Oval Office.

It isn't especially edifying, this colossal pressure to pander to the lowest common denominator by reducing the infinitely complex to five-second sound bites, but it is the most thrilling, visceral and pure distillation of democracy in action there is. Perhaps one day, in this ever more presidential system of ours where wives introduce husbands on stage, we'll have it here.

We deserve better than the cheaply synthesised loyalty and crudely coded messaging of the conference speech, the irrelevant, disregarded, cliché-laden knockabout of PMQs and the the witlessly choreographed general election shadow-boxing designed solely to spare candidates from discomforting encounters with public and opponents alike. We deserve the same raw combat that will electrify the United States and the untold tens of millions watching around the world tomorrow night.