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What not to look for in tonight’s debate

It’s easy to judge on style, but we want more policy specifics

TV’s talking heads will be at it all day, all night and into Wednesday: Looking for all the wrong things in the second presidential debate tonight.

The questions consuming them and the campaigns revolve around showmanship, not substance. Will President Barack Obama be more energetic than he was at the first debate in Denver? Will he look like he wants to be there? Will he look down too much? And will Republican nominee Mitt Romney come off as likeable to voters in the town hall meeting in Hempstead, N.Y.? Will he stay as aggressive as he was in the first meeting earlier this month, but not seem angry or mean?

This is how many pundits and Americans are judging who wins a debate. Zingers over a zooming economy, attacks over tax talk.

It’s only human. Voters’ opinions are sometimes influenced by body language and how a candidate performs more than they are the intricate details of public policy. Even the biggest wonks can’t follow every nuance, claim and counterclaim.

Even so, think about what matters here. Judge the candidates on what they say more than on how they say it. The winner tonight in our book will be the candidate who fibs least, delivers specifics most and best spells out a real plan for accelerating the sluggish economic recovery.

For Obama, that means explaining, in precise terms, how his policies will put more people back to work and why we should believe the next four years will be better than the past four. For Romney, it means being more convincing that he has a mathematically sound way to pay for his tax cuts, on top of the Bush tax cuts, and that those cuts will create jobs. Voters also deserve some specificity around which deductions and exemptions Romney would eliminate – a place he has declined to go so far.

It’s not that the first presidential debate and last week’s vice presidential debate were short on substance. They weren’t. It’s that the substance was largely ignored. The emphasis after Denver was mostly on Obama’s lethargy and Romney’s energy. The talk after the vice presidential debate was on Vice President Joe Biden’s laughs, smiles, interruptions and looks heavenward, with a mention of Ryan’s water consumption. Is any of that a sound basis for electing a president?

We’re guilty, too, but now we want a better handle on each candidate’s jobs plan. We hope the candidates will go beyond generalities like “deregulation.” Which regulations should be eliminated, and what should replace them, if anything? If you plan to cut spending, precisely where would you cut, and how much does that amount to? Obama should spend more time talking about his job creation plans and a little bit less criticizing Romney’s. In the Denver debate, he did the opposite.

The format may help. CNN’s Candy Crowley will moderate, with voters asking questions in a town hall-style meeting and Crowley following up as needed. That arrangement encourages the candidate to talk directly to the voter, not to his opponent or the moderator. And the candidates must know by now what voters want to hear: Exactly how they’re going to turn America around more swiftly.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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