What to listen for tonight

Don't believe your eyes -- use your ears to search for substance in debate

Who do you think would win in a debate between columnist George Will and comedian Jon Stewart?

It probably depends on whether you’re watching it or reading the transcript; whether you’re actually scoring the arguments or listening for the laugh lines.

That fact may also color how you view tonight’s ultra-important debate between presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Given the history of these two campaigners, it’s fair to expect that Mr. Romney will come off like your dad’s accountant – serious and knowledgeable, which hasn’t sold well in the television era – and for Mr. Obama to be light on substance and heavy on platitudes and whimsy, which plays well in front of live audiences.

This, in an election that will determine the future of this country.

Also, given presidential debate lore, what will be remembered likely won’t be either candidate’s command of the facts or their vision for the future, but their one-liners. And their comportment – did they sigh a lot? did they look at their watches? did they sweat? did they seem nice? – will determine the pundits’ decisions on who “won.”

This isn’t a game, though. It’s not a boxing match where the head and body blows are tabulated. This is an election to determine who will lead the most powerful nation on Earth. Should it be seen as a win or a loss for a man, based upon how good he looked or how bad he made the other guy look? Or should it be a way for Americans to determine which candidate’s vision has a better chance of lifting the nation out of its chronic doldrums?

There can be little doubt that George Will is the greater intellect. But could he “win” a debate against a snarky comedian in today’s America?

You can pretty much score the Romney-Obama debate beforehand: If we’re judging it by reason, fact and the record of the incumbent, Romney wins. If we’re judging it by charm, glibness and how he makes you feel, it’s Obama’s to lose.

Reason tells you that the current president is spending future generations to oblivion with nothing to show for it; that his health-care law is actually increasing premiums instead of reducing them; that all manner of taxes will strike a weakened America like a meteor next year; that this president’s anti-business, pro-government policies aren’t helping (and how could they?); and that his foreign policy initiatives are in flames.

Reason also makes you wonder: Would the country and its left-wing intelligentsia be so wholly silent about the continued carnage in Afghanistan were this a Republican president? Or would Cindy Sheehan be camped out as she was at Bush’s ranch?

It’s a good bet, though, that reason won’t decide either this debate outcome or the election’s. And that the Obama camp is banking on it.

Other media outlets may tell you what to watch for tonight. What you should be thinking about, in our view, is what to listen for.

Our hearty recommendation: substance.

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