On Monday night, like an eclipse, much of America will darken to watch the first 2016 Presidential Debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. As many as 100 million people are expected to watch this verbal bout between the oldest contender for a first term and the first woman nominated to run. Right now, it is impossible to guess who will win, but there will be clues throughout.
Sometimes it comes down to simple style. The first televised debate between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960, watched by an estimated 70 million people, defined differences that never faded from the screen. As I wrote in The World Almanac of Presidential Campaigns (1992): "Nixon, eight pounds underweight due to a knee infection, wore his shirt collar too loose and his drawn face, covered lightly with Lazy Shave, was the worse for a shadow of a beard. And it was Kennedy, not Nixon, who believed a producer's advice: "Play to the cameras. That's where the votes are." Mitt Romney did not listen either in his face-offs with President Barack Obama in 2012. Ramrod-straight, attentively focusing on debate moderators, Romney did not lean in to the real audience right in front of him.
At other times, it is tone that turns the tide. In fact, "There you go again" has become such a triumphant debate zinger that pundits are waiting for Clinton or Trump to make it theirs on Monday. Ronald Reagan, the Republican challenger in 1980, appropriated that movie line (from John Wayne's Rio Bravo) to dismiss President Jimmy Carter's persistent questions about Reagan's plans to cut Medicare, and, in the end, the former actor swaggered off the stage.
Finally, substance can make or break a debate. In the 1988 Vice Presidential debate, ever senatorial Lloyd Bentsen, running on the ticket with Democrat Michael Dukakis, pulled up short his boyish, less experienced opponent, Senator Dan Quayle, who bragged that he had "as much experience as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." Bentsen cut him off: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
Bentsen's running mate did not fare as well. Dukakis, in his debate against future-president George H.W. Bush, was too cerebral, answering coldly that we would never recommend the death penalty even if, as the moderator queried, "Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered." Dukakis argued that the death penalty does not work and that he "opposed the death penalty during all my life." No one cared; they wanted emotion.
So, the questions remain: Will both Clinton and Trump both appear to be healthy and at the top of their game? Will Trump showcase as downright mean and overbearing? Will Clinton come across as too focused on facts and not a connector with people? Will they both surprise us? It all comes down to style, tone and substance. Debate moments can change the race, as they have in the past.