Debates increase the electorate's interest in campaigns and encourage people to vote.
The Commission on Presidential Debates and the Speech Communication Assn. offers suggestions to people watching and listening to candidate debates:
Set aside partisan views. Instead, use debates to learn as much as possible about the candidates and their positions.
Pay close attention to candidates when they talk about what should be done to solve problems.
Decide to whom the candidate is appealing. Listen closely to opening and closing speeches, which are often revealing.
Identify the candidate's overriding theme in the debate. If you have difficulty, the candidate may not have a well-developed message.
Don't watch a debate to determine a winner or loser. Candidates have debate goals and all could actually come out winners.
THE LEAGUE of Women Voters offers these tips:
Collect campaign literature and compare what is written in those materials to what is said during debates.
Videotape the debate. Plan to go back and review what issues were discussed and how the candidates performed.
Be alert for vagueness and generalities. The language that candidates use can be so skillfully crafted that truth is distorted.
Prentice-Carlin said everyone can become a better consumer of information provided in debates with adequate preparation. Stay up with current events and major campaign themes, she said.
"Debates are not frozen in time," she said. "If people have no background, the questions and answers won't make much sense."
Harris said viewers and listeners of debates should take notes. Write down questions and answers. Consider how well the candidate answers the question, he said.
"THERE IS a tendency in debates for candidates to avoid questions or twist the answer," he said. "They throw in phrases and quotes they've been using in stump speeches."
Prentice-Carlin said viewers should pay attention to the context of questions.
"Listen to see if they've responded in the way they've been asked to," she said. "That gives you a sense of whether the candidate is avoiding the question or hitting it head on."
Harris said candidates have downplayed their debating skills in an effort to lower expectations. Here's his analysis of Bush's, Clinton's and Perot's debating abilities:
Bush has proved himself to be a combative, competitive debater. He has a knack for sidestepping sticky questions. He also is capable of packing his presentation with emotion. He must convince voters he deserves another term.
Clinton has a striking command of facts and words. He's good at expressing precise details on issues. He has the advantage of a thorough campaign platform upon which to rely. He will strive to appear presidential.
Perot is the unknown. He could talk tough and play havoc with Clinton and Bush.