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My account of what it’s like to play an opposing candidate in presidential debate preparation, for the Tumblr election blog.


Did you ever wish you knew someone who had seen presidential debate preparation from the inside? Have you been reading about the “stand-ins” — Sen. John Kerry playing Romney in President Obama’s debate rehearsals, and Sen. Rob Portman playing Obama for Romney’s sessions — and wondered what that’s like?

Well, you’re in luck. I have a little personal experience with this: 21 years ago, as a campaign staffer for presidential candidate Paul Tsongas (above, right) I took part in debate prep and was a stand-in for another of the candidates, Jerry Brown of California.

Paul Tsongas was a former Senator from Massachusetts who’d left Congress in 1985 following a cancer diagnosis. After experimental treatment sent him into remission, he decided to run for president. The Democratic field in 1992 seemed weak; most heavyweights were afraid to challenge President Bush, whose approval ratings topped 91% during the 1991 Gulf War. Tsongas was the first to announce, but as a former one-term Senator with no national name ID, he wasn’t taken too seriously by the press. Other candidates included, of course Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton — also not yet well-known nationally outside of political circles — along with Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, then-ex (and now again) California Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Tsongas was an unlikely presidential candidate. His speeches were meandering, not crisp. His voice reminded some people of Elmer Fudd. Newspaper stories typically omitted his name from the list of Democratic candidates, even though he consistently led the polls for the New Hampshire primary. But his impassioned economic message won him an intense following, and his young, mostly unpaid New Hampshire staff recalled the 1968 “children’s crusade” antiwar campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

Ultimately, all Tsongas’s unpolished qualities made him seem authentic and even adorable; Al Franken played him addressing a Star Trek convention on Saturday Night Live.

In September 1991, I took a leave from grad school at Berkeley to join the campaign in Boston as polling director. My experience for the job was limited: I’d worked on the 1988 Dukakis campaign, then taken some survey analysis courses and worked part-time at a small polling firm in California. It turned out that the Tsongas campaign didn’t have much money for polling — or much else — and I was repurposed into a more urgent role: joining the Issues team helping Tsongas prepare for the second all-candidate debate.

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