Debate Prep with Joe

(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Joe Biden at a debate at Dartmouth College in September 2007.

Even presidents need a little practice from time to time, something immediately clear to anyone who tuned into last week's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Obama, busy with his day job of running a country, had supposedly been skimping on debate preparation sessions. Meanwhile, the Republican candidate had bunkered down over the past several months, practicing his zingers and perfecting his 90-second pitches. The result: The incumbent was left fumbling for words when they finally met onstage. Historically debates haven't shifted the final election results, but a slight Romney bump seems to be emerging in the latest tracking polls.

Clearly Barack Obama should have spent a few more hours in mock debates against John Kerry, the stand-in actor the campaign selected to play Mitt Romney. A dependable politician from the party is selected to play the opponent’s role. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, for example, has become the de facto Democrat for Republican nominees, playing the roles of Joe Lieberman in 2000, John Edwards in 2004, and Barack Obama for both the McCain and Romney campaigns.

When Sarah Palin joined the ticket in 2008, Democrats turned to then-Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to adopt the persona of the Alaska governor during practice sessions with Joe Biden. Granholm, who now hosts a show on Current TV and became a household name after her hyperactive DNC speech this September, spoke with the Prospect last week about her experience prepping Biden in 2008 and her suggestions for the vice president as he gets ready for Thursday's debate with Paul Ryan.

What did you do to prepare for the debate sessions with then-Senator Biden? How much time did you spend studying Governor Palin?

I watched all of Sarah Palin's previous debates, because I wanted to embody her in some way. I wanted to understand how she ticked. But I also studied her positions and McCain's positions. Clearly she was new to the team, but she had to absorb his thoughts. I spent a few days going over her materials and his and her positions. Briefing books and all of that. And that's all before getting to debate camp.

How long was that debate camp?

It was three days, in the days that preceded the actual debate.

What was your goal during these practices? Was it to adopt Palin's mannerisms, her tone of voice? Or was it to mainly cover the policy points?

During the mock debates the whole goal was to try to get under Joe Biden's skin. Or try to knock him off his game. Try to throw as much his way that could possibly come up during a real debate and see how he handled it.

Did you ever get under his skin?

Actually he was pretty darn good. He's a natural reactor. He's a naturally likeable person. This is quite different from what the current scenario is, but with Sarah Palin she was an outsider, she was a woman, and because she was an outsider she didn't have all of the policy positions down pat. So for him, the challenge was to keep all of the great information he had in his head and have him communicate it in a way that didn't seem like he was smarter than her, or knew more than her. He couldn't appear condescending in any way. We wanted to bait him in some way, to see if we could have the rabbit go down the hole. But he understood that was what he had to guard against, so it was actually really good.

Over the course of these three days, how many mock debates did you hold?

My memory is a little faulty, but it was at least one per night and I want to say on some nights we had two. The mock debates themselves were actually done exactly to the time setup, to the number of questions we thought would be asked. There were no interruptions. It was very specific. But during the day we would go over questions and answers at the podium that we thought would be asked, and try out different kinds of scenarios.

During the mock debates would you remain in character the whole time?

Oh yeah. During the mock there was no stopping. You had to do it as though it were really happening.

Was it interesting to get into Palin’s mindset?

It was very interesting. Actually I developed, based upon the review I did of her debates, I really had a good amount of respect for her. Of course this was just after she had those terrible interviews with Katie Couric, and we had to assume she was going to bring her A game to this debate, and she ended up bringing her A game to the debate.

We didn't know something that we all know now, which is that she was melting down in Sedona [during her debate prep]. We were curious about why images from Arizona were being supplied to the media—if you recall, at the time there were images of her at a podium under a tree that were sent out to let people know what was going on during the debate practice on their end. We thought, “Wow, isn't that interesting," because our debate prep was quite different. We were in a hotel room that had a mockup of the stage. But we didn't know at the time that all of that was because there was some trouble on her end.

So when we did the practices, I took her on as the Sarah Palin who was the governor of Alaska, who was a reformer, who went after her own party, who was strong. We drew it a few times where she might have responded in the way she responded to Katie Couric just to see what Joe Biden would do if something went wrong during the debates for her. But for the most part I tried to be the Sarah Palin that John McCain selected initially, not the one she became during the rough patches in their campaign.

When you watched the actual debate, were there any moments that surprised you? Anything that you hadn't prepped?

No! Actually we spoke within an hour after the debate was over. I watched it from home and Biden called after it was over. We were laughing at how well we had anticipated what would happen, the questions, and how she would react. We were so happy the way the debate came out because he clearly wanted to make sure that—for him, a tie was a win—he wanted to make sure that there was no harm done. And in fact from our side we thought he had won the debate, but of course on their side they thought she had as well. It came out just how we would have planned it.

There weren't any moments watching it where you thought to yourself, “Shoot, we missed covering that?”

Well, I missed the wink. But other than that, it was the topics we had covered. It will be interesting though, looking ahead to this debate practice—I'm not involved so I don't know any of the details of how that debate prep is going—I can imagine from the outside that because he's debating someone entirely different, who is very familiar with all of the policies in Washington, who is wonky, who knows this stuff, it really is going to be a robust debate practice and probably a robust debate in terms of policy. I would imagine that for both of them they've got to monitor how much inside-the-Washington-Beltway they sound. They've got to reach across that Beltway and speak to the people at home. It might be easy for them to get bogged down in some of the policy details since they're both so good at that.

If you were practicing against Biden as Paul Ryan this time, what would you do to push him?

You know, Joe Biden is a passionate person and he, one of the reason I love him, wears his heart on his sleeve. So if I'm on the Ryan side I'm going to want to see if I can goad him some way that gets him personally upset, in some way to knock him off balance. See if I can get him to commit a gaffe.

On offense for Biden, I would go right after the differences in policy between Ryan and Romney. Ryan has got positions that are extreme. I'd go right at that, and try to exploit the differences between the two. In fact that's one of the things that in 2008 I thought that we would be doing against Biden, meaning if I am Sarah Palin I'm going to go after Biden about the differences between him and the top of the ticket. He had just been invited on, he didn't know all of the policies, hadn't absorbed all of the policies of Barack Obama because he had his own campaign that he was running.

To go at the policy differences between the president and the vice-presidential candidate is a good strategy, and I imagine it can be flipped this time around. There is not going to be daylight between Biden and Obama, but there is daylight between Ryan and Romney. Going after that, exploiting that and showing people what Ryan's positions really are would be an important tactic.

From past debates you often see the candidates complain about these debate camps. When you worked with Biden, did it seem like he wanted to be there? And do you think these are useful exercises for the candidates? Did you see an improvement for Biden?

Just speaking as governor, I hated debate preps. Hated them. I was struck in 2008 that Biden was so good-natured about it. He was game. I think that normally candidates hate these debate practices, because it is really like reading an opposition memo about yourself in front of a bunch of people. They know the stand-in is going to go right for the jugular, right for the hardest points and expose you and make you uncomfortable. If you're a good stand-in that's what you do. People hate that. Joe Biden is so good-natured and so smart on the policy that he was a very good sport about it all.

I think there is no substitute. You can sit around and read briefing books all you want, but until you are behind a podium and have to formulate the words, hear what it sounds like, there is just no substitute. This Ryan-Biden matchup is going to be interesting. I don't know Paul Ryan, so I don't know how he's feeling during the debate preps that he's going through, but I do think that he's really quick on his feet. He's a quick study on policy matters, and I would imagine that he has spent considerable time preparing for the parts of the debate that he might have more challenge with like foreign policy, but with his experience with the defense budget and all of that, he's going to be good. I'm sure Biden is going to take that into account as he goes into his prep and take it seriously.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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