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John E. Sununu

Just answer the question

By John E. Sununu
October 10, 2011

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SOME DAY, the media covering the presidential primary may get what they most want — a cage match, winner take all: eight candidates enter, one nominee leaves. Until then, they’ll have to settle for the current arrangement: an endless series of debates, where “lightning rounds’’ and silly questions too often subvert the opportunity for substantive exchange.

Tuesday night in Hanover, N.H., we get to see a debate that aspires to a more topical, if not more serious, discussion. In a timely twist, the forum will focus exclusively on the economy. The press may have already pre-written lines about “landing punches,’’ “gaffes,’’ and “knock-outs,’’ but the candidates need to take a longer view. They need to define their own goals, and they must approach the stage with a mission - not with a bag of punch lines, like so many often do.

Debates don’t make or break. They’re not boxing matches. In reality, they’re just another part of the campaign narrative. On a good day, they reveal and reinforce truths about a candidate’s ideas and personality. The reason we so easily remember Ronald Reagan’s line “I’m paying for this microphone’’ is because it crisply reflected his direct and confident approach. If his debate performances weren’t so strong, it would have appeared more like an act of plaintive desperation. Candidates succeed when they avoid moments that are forced or insincere, and when they are willing to show the public who they really are.

Sincerity is at the heart of Herman Cain’s recent bump in coverage and the polls. He needs to just keep doing whatever it is he is doing. The press loves him because his success has been unexpected. Deep down, however, he drives them crazy. Although many politicians say they don’t care what the press thinks, Cain really doesn’t care what they think.

Rick Perry resides at the opposite end of the worry spectrum. He’s had a bad couple of weeks as the poster child for what not to do in a debate: trying too hard to deliver a scripted line. In his effort to sting Mitt Romney over being “for ObamaCare before he was against it,’’ Perry appeared tongue-tied and tired. He should play to his strengths - the leadership skills of a chief executive. A late entrant, he had the chance to stay above the fray, but jumped right into it. Good luck getting out.

Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum need the debate most. They’re both successful politicians; Santorum twice won statewide in a purple state. But they have yet to catch on. A debate focusing on job creation helps define their economic policies for voters and build momentum for campaigns that have been slow off the mark.

If we were electing a smarty-pants, Newt Gingrich might be doing better in the polls. He’s read more books, taught more classes, and delivered more obscure history references than anyone on the stage. Ideas shoot from his head at an alarming rate. Some are good; some are not. It makes for engaging debate performances, but has earned him a reputation for a lack of discipline.

Discipline and consistency have given Romney an edge in the debate appearances so far. In many ways his weaknesses - he’s businesslike, bland, even a bit wonky - become strengths over a series of repeated encounters. As a front-runner, he’s been a target; the Massachusetts health care plan is a liability in a Republican primary. But he has avoided mistakes, knows business, and maintains a smile. This format couldn’t be better. He needs to ignore the crossfire and take advantage.

Of all the candidates, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul have developed a welcome habit of being direct. In the end, that’s about the best debate advice there is: just answer the question. Resist the impulse to finish an earlier point - no matter how brilliant you thought it was - or go back to an earlier exchange. The moderators don’t want to hear it; viewers don’t want to hear it. Leadership is about clarity, decisiveness, moving forward - and finishing on time.

I remember a gubernatorial debate years ago where the final softball question was “Name another profession you would have enjoyed.’’ It was late, and one candidate started fumbling for the absolute perfect answer. He stammered and paused; started and stopped. He couldn’t decide. Time marched on. Empathizing, I shouted at the TV: “A baker! Just say a baker!’’

Eventually, the moderator mercifully interrupted. It was a symbolic end to a campaign that had already faltered, and a lesson for the Republican contenders tomorrow night: When you are president, you can - and should - work painstakingly to get policy right. But on debate night, just get the job done.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.