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Game-Changing Debate Moments


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Snowe steps down, Obama rallies the base, and nothing holds Romney back. It is Wednesday and time for a...

MITT ROMNEY: Deceptive and a dirty trick...

DONVAN: Edition of the political junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.


DONVAN: Every week political junkie Ken Rudin joins us to recap the week in politics. It's been a great week. Mitt Romney takes Tuesday's primaries in Arizona and Michigan. Two Republicans are calling it a day: three-term moderate Olympia Snowe is retiring, she says due to excessive partisanship. David Dreier is also announcing his retirement, while former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey wants to get back into the game.

The president fires up the UAW in Michigan, and simmering culture wars: contraception and abortion bills in the Congress and the states. In a few minutes we're going to talk with Alan Schroeder about this year's long string of primary debates - there were a lot of them - and what did they accomplish? Later on in the program Sandra Tsing Loh on why she is ready for her father to die.

But first we begin, as we always do, with a trivia question from you, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, John. OK. Well, the shocking news of the day yesterday was the announcement that Olympia Snowe of Maine announced that she would not seek another term. She joins another woman, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who's retiring after this year. The trivia question is: Who was the last female senator to retire after her term was completed?

DONVAN: A question prompted by Senator Snowe's decision.

RUDIN: That's correct.

DONVAN: So, speaking of Senator Snowe's decision, what does this do to the GOP's hopes in the Senate?

RUDIN: Well, of course, you know, Jeff Flake is running from Arizona so we're going to get rid of Snowe but we'll get Flake. (Unintelligible).

DONVAN: Ugh. That was good.

RUDIN: But, no, it's bad news, it's terrible news, for the Republican Party. This decision has taken this seat in Maine, it's given it from a safe Republican seat to a likely Democratic takeover. It's a very moderate – mainstream, moderate liberal state. They do have a Tea Party governor, and we could talk about that at some point too, but only Olympia Snowe probably could only be the Republican who could win it and now you have a lot of Democrats.

The filing deadline isn't until March 15 so they have two weeks to file enough signatures to get on the ballot.

DONVAN: Could there not be another moderate Republican in Maine?

RUDIN: Well, there was is state Senate president who was a former Olympia Snowe chief of staff who may be the Republican candidate, but there are still also two very popular members of Congress who are talking about running: Chellie Pingree from the urban part of the state, if there's such a thing as the urban part of the state of Maine; and Mike Michaud who's from the rural part.

The two members of Congress, from the House, from the state. Michaud took out some filing papers even today so at least he may run, and she may run too. It looks like it's a Democratic pickup.

DONVAN: Can you repeat for me the trivia question?

RUDIN: The trivia question was the fact that Olympia Snowe announced that she's not going to run and we already know that Kay Bailey Hutchison is not running. When was the last time a female senator decided to retire when her term was completed?

DONVAN: Let's go to callers and our first correct answer, I hope. Phil(ph), from Mitchell, South Dakota. Phil, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JIM: Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.

RUDIN: Well, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was a long-time senator except she did retire on her own. She was defeated for reelection in 1972.

JIM: Oh, OK.

DONVAN: Sorry, Phil. We have another Phil(ph) in Hollywood, Florida. Phil?

PHIL: Oh, yes. Hi. How are you? Good afternoon.


PHIL: My guess would be Elizabeth Dole from North Carolina.

RUDIN: Well, again, Elizabeth Dole, like Margaret Chase Smith, tried to win another term but was defeated. She was defeated in 2006 by Kay Hagan – or 2008, but she lost on her – was defeated. She did retire on her own.

PHIL: Very well.


DONVAN: I'm amazed by hearing your corrections of the wrong answers.

RUDIN: Oh, I don't forget anything, Steve. No. I'm sorry – John.

DONVAN: Speaking of Steve, David Dreier is also announcing his retirement as a California Republican in Congress.

RUDIN: He is the best and that's not a surprise, although it's big news, though. He is the chairman of the House Rules Committee. He's been in Congress since 1981. He came in on the Reagan sweep in 1980. But this independent commission that basically re-jiggered the entire California congressional delegation, it left David Dreier with no place to run. The Republican areas were too far away from his former district. The thing closest to his is a district that Obama carried with 61 percent. So he really has no place to go.

DONVAN: So he'd stay in the game if he could.

RUDIN: Oh, he's chairman of the Rules Committee. He's very, very powerful. I mean, you know, he hasn't lost a step but he just has no place to run. And this new redistrict in California has really decimated the California delegation. I think this is now the seventh member of Congress from California who's going to retire because of this.

Jerry Lewis, long-time appropriations guy, announced his retirement. And other members will lose too because there are members versus members in the June primary.

DONVAN: Our trivia question is: who was the last female senator to retire after her term was completed? If you think you know the answer, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And the winner gets that fabulous no-prize T-shirt.

RUDIN: Incredible, it is.

DONVAN: So let's see. Here we have Jim in Hampton Hills, Illinois. Jim, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Jim, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JIM: Hello?

DONVAN: Hello.

RUDIN: Jim, we're waiting for your answer.

DONVAN: What's your guess? I'm sorry – what's your correct answer?

JIM: Nancy Landon Kassebaum.

RUDIN: Nancy Landon Kassebaum is the correct answer. She's a Republican from Kansas who announced her retirement in 1996, did not run for reelection. She is the last female member of the Senate to retire on her own.

DONVAN: So congratulations, Jim. You get the T-shirt. I want you to stay on the line and your information will be gathered and wear it in pride.

JIM: Great. Thank you.

DONVAN: OK. Thanks very much. I want to talk a little bit about Tuesday and what happened in Michigan. I don't know if you would say the expected happened but we're going to take a listen to it in one moment. I wanted to listen to Mitt Romney's celebration. So why don't you talk about it? And then we're going to hear it.

RUDIN: Well, it shouldn't be a surprise because, as everybody says, and they point out over and over again, that Mitt Romney this is his home state where he was born, where he was raised, where his father served as governor throughout most of the 1960's. But a week ago after his victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, Rick Santorum had opened up a lead in Michigan as well and so a lot of people were saying here we go again.

Mitt Romney is the ostensible frontrunner. The guy is going to take us from out of the wilderness to defeat Barack Obama in November, but, you know, he was losing. But he won yesterday.

ROMNEY: And in this room are the people who knocked on the doors and made the calls and went to the polls. And it made an enormous difference. We didn't win by a lot but we won by enough and that's all that counts.

DONVAN: So was it a win? A win, win?

RUDIN: A win is a win is a win, although if the name of the game is 1,144 delegates, Mitt Romney may not have gotten the most delegates out of Michigan. Right now they allocate delegates in Michigan by congressional district. Right now, of the delegates that have been counted, Rick Santorum has 13 delegates, Mitt Romney has 13 delegates, but in the two congressional districts that haven't submitted their totals yet, Rick Santorum is leading in both of them.

So Rick Santorum could come out of Michigan with the lead in delegates but, again, the headline is that Romney wins both. And he did win both.

DONVAN: What's with Santorum urging Democrats to vote in Michigan?

RUDIN: Well, both parties have done it before. I remember, I think it was Karl Rove who talked about it – and this didn't begin with Karl Rove, but in 2000 he was saying that maybe Republicans could cause some mischief by voting in the Democratic primary and either trying to sabotage Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or whatever. So that's not, you know, that's not a new tactic.

It's not a tactic that I particularly care for but it is something that, you know, Rick Santorum felt that the way to get, you know, obviously, the Democrats would love to see – look, the one thing that Rick Santorum and Barack Obama have in common is that they would both love to have Rick Santorum as a Republican nominee. So if Democrats crossed over, that would help Rick Santorum.

DONVAN: So more on Rick Santorum. This video surfaced from him speaking in October about the speech that John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 when he was running as a Catholic president, and his - there were concerns about his Catholic faith. And the president gave a speech in which he more or less told a group of Evangelicals that he was committed to separation of church and state.

Santorum recently, in October, read the speech and said this about it.

RICK SANTORUM: I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up.

DONVAN: And then on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" over the weekend, George pressed him on this point.


SANTORUM: What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come in the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up.

DONVAN: You know, I'm sorry this is a lunchtime program, with all of this talk of nausea, but...

RUDIN: A lot of people usually feel that after TALK OF THE NATION and Political Junkie. But you know something? That's not what President Kennedy - well, then-candidate John F. Kennedy was talking about. He was talking about that they should not be - you know, no preference of any religion. He was the first Catholic elected in 1960. Al Smith had run as a Catholic in 1928.

But being a Catholic is almost like what being a Mormon is in 2012. They were looked on suspiciously. And Kennedy basically gave that speech, not to say that people of faith should not be involved in the public discourse, but that, you know, there should be no preference of religion, and, you know, religion should not be the defining part of a candidate.

So my feeling is that Santorum misread, and/or, misrepresented what Kennedy was saying.

DONVAN: Something else he said this week, he commented on President Obama's remarks about a great thing if everybody in America could go to college. And Senator Santorum said this.

SANTORUM: Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people have incredible gifts and use - and want to work out there making things. President Obama wants to send - he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.


DONVAN: It got a lot of applause in that room. Did it play well everywhere else, would you say?

RUDIN: Well, look, Rick Santorum is a culture warrior. He - this is the way he thinks is the way to the Republican nomination. But to say - basically to turn his nose down on higher education, I mean, President Obama was not saying that, you know, everybody has to go to college. He just thinks it would be a nice thing if people went to college or higher education.

And for Rick Santorum, who, you know, went to all these colleges and got his master's - or, you know, he went to graduate school and all that, to say Obama's a - basically he was saying that higher education and colleges indoctrinate you with liberal philosophy. And that's - you know, look, there are a lot of people who come out of colleges, and they wind up conservative.

DONVAN: And go into business school.

RUDIN: Yes, and even wind up on this program. But anyway, it's the kind of thing that just, just seem to be over-the-top language from Rick Santorum this week.

DONVAN: The road ahead, Super Tuesday is less than a week away. What do you see?

RUDIN: You have 10 states, primaries and caucuses. Now again, we saw Romney going down after he lost South Carolina. He woke up again when he won Florida. Then he went down again when he lost Colorado and Minnesota. And now he's up again.

But again, it's going to be a tough row - even though he won to the two states yesterday, Mitt Romney still has tough, you know, schedule ahead of him. On March 6th, he has Ohio, where Newt Gingrich is campaigning very hard, where Rick Santorum had a debate, had a lead in the polls until recently. It's going to be tough, and every defeat will be magnified.

DONVAN: Well, we are talking with political junkie Ken Rudin, and up next, after more debates than ever in this political season, was anything actually debated? I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. It is Wednesday, and that is Political Junkie day here, and Ken Rudin is with us, as always. Ken, do we have a winner from last week's ScuttleButton Prize?

RUDIN: We actually do, and that person is - let me find that name. It's Jeff Esposito(ph) of Billerica, Massachusetts, and he came up with - I had a button from the Crimean War and a button from De La Riva, who ran for governor of California. So it became cry me a river. Yes...

DONVAN: I love that.

RUDIN: Thank you very much. You can get a T-shirt if...

DONVAN: I wish you liked puns more.

RUDIN: Well, Attila the Pun. OK...


DONVAN: I'm not going to go any further with that. We're going to give them a no-prize T-shirt, as well. And you can find his latest ScuttleButton puzzle and Political Junkie column at npr.org/junkie.

So just when you thought the debates were finished, Mike Huckabee announced he is having a presidential forum on Saturday on Fox News. There have been more than a dozen debates so far in this campaign with some memorable highs and lows. And we want to know something very specific: Was there one moment that made you change your mind on a candidate, other than Rick Perry saying oops? That doesn't count, but something that really leapt out at you and touched you and moved you in one of these debates.

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ken, I want to, talking about these debates, point out something that seems to happen a lot in the course of this kind of discourse, particularly in this season.

Last Wednesday, CNN's John King asked Rick Santorum a very specific question: What should be the role of the United States in Syria? Santorum said this.

SANTORUM: Syria is a puppet state of Iran.

DONVAN: And then he went on for more than a minute before he wound up here.

SANTORUM: Ladies and gentlemen, we have a president who isn't going to stop them. He isn't going to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon. We need a new president, or we are going to have a cataclysmic situation with a power that is the most prolific proliferator of terror in the world that will be able to do so with impunity because they will have a nuclear weapon.

DONVAN: He was talking about Iran. The question was: What should be the role of the United States in Syria? I want to have join us now from member station WBUR in Boston Alan Schroeder. He is the author of "Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-risk TV."

Alan, a very specific question about Syria was asked there: Should the U.S. intervene? It's important. It's relevant. It's difficult. And we heard an answer about the president's policy on Iran. What just happened there?

ALAN SCHROEDER: What just happened is the classic dodge that politicians do constantly in these debates. It's not quite as hostile as that Mitt Romney example you were talking about earlier, where he basically not only refuses to answer the question, but then tries to justify his refusal.

But, you know, I think that one thing that happens is as you're watching debates, if you see candidates who are not being responsive or who are so obviously evasive that that backfires, because people are waiting for the answer. If they don't get it, then something's wrong.

DONVAN: You know, I question whether it does backfire, and I'll say why in a moment. But I want to point out that the very same question - John King then turned to Newt Gingrich and asked exactly the same question about the U.S., should it intervene in Syria. This was Gingrich's answer.

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, look, the first thing I do across the board, for the entire region, is create a very dramatic American energy policy of opening up federal lands and opening up offshore drilling and replacing the EPA...


DONVAN: So that question about Syria became Newt Gingrich's talking point about oil drilling in the U.S. And what I'm wondering is: Do they do it - you say that they don't get away with it. I wonder if they do because they do it again and again and again.

SCHROEDER: Well, in that little Newt Gingrich clip, the thing that strikes me is at least he was talking about the Middle East in his response, as opposed to just using his entire response to complain about the format and the moderator and the questions. So for him, that was actually pretty responsive.

But yeah, you know, look, politicians are almost - you know, that's their sort of reflex position is to try to bob and weave and evade the question. But I do think that anybody who's watching and paying the slightest bit of attention is going to notice that for whatever reason they weren't willing to grapple with the question.

DONVAN: So here's my question to you: How valuable are these debates as a way to understand what our candidates would do if in office about the specific things that are asked of them? Do we ever find out?

SCHROEDER: Well, it's - they're probably not valuable for that particular thing that you just outlined there, because I think that debates are pretty bad predictors of what is going to happen. If you go all the way back to 1960 with John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, there was not a single reference to Vietnam in any of those debates, and of course that became kind of the defining issue of the 1960s.

Similarly in 2000, when Bush and Gore debated, nobody was talking about terrorist attacks or threats from the Middle East or that sort of thing. What debates do tell you is a little bit about the character and the personalities of the people running for office. They're pretty good indicators of that sort of - those sorts of personal characteristics, better indicators of that, I think, than policy positions.

DONVAN: Ken Rudin, do you agree with that, that debates actually do tell us something about who the guys are?

RUDIN: I do, and I think that that was part of the reason why a lot of people felt that for all - if you take a look at the debates in 2000 between Al Gore, Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush, people felt that George W. Bush was more likable, the kind of guy you wanted to have a beer with.

And every time Al Gore would have that momentous sigh, you know, that oh, what a dumb answer. But he would just sigh, everybody said oh, that says bad things about Gore, but it never addressed what Bush and Gore were talking about.

DONVAN: Does that bother you as somebody who follows this? Do you feel it's enough to kind of get the guy's style without really getting to his substance? Or do you think, even if they're not answering the questions or staying on-topic, you do get their substance?

RUDIN: Well, yes and no. I mean, you do get the substance. You do get the personality. But, you know, as Professor Schroeder would talk about, will say as well, that there are a lot of questions asked of the Republican candidates - what would they have done differently from President Obama on the stimulus package, on bailing out the auto companies, on doing X, Y or Z - and there were not that many specifics at all, other than saying well, I'll repeal Obamacare, or I won't - we just have to get rid of Obama. And there were far less specifics than the question as demanded.

DONVAN: We want to ask you your views on these debates and whether there was a specific moment in a debate where something for you really happened, really clicked, and you were really able to make a decision. Our number is 800-989-8255. And I want to go now to Bend, Oregon, and we have Paul(ph) waiting online. Paul, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MATTHEW: Hey, hello there.

DONVAN: I'm sorry, Matthew(ph), Matthew, my apologies.

MATTHEW: I'm here from Bend, Oregon.

DONVAN: Yeah, you're on the air, and we'd like to hear your view on this.

MATTHEW: So during the last debate, they asked Ron Paul why he differs - or how he differs from the other three candidates, and his main thing was that he's a non-interventionist foreign policy. And I was just, you know, at that moment, I was, like, you know, he really is a true conservative champion of the Constitution. And he kind of had me at that moment.

DONVAN: And you felt like the answer had substance?

MATTHEW: It totally had substance. I feel like every answer he gives has substance.

DONVAN: Interestingly, on the question that I was using as an example about intervention in Syria, he answered very, very specifically and very - he was, of the four candidates that night, he was the one who actually stayed on point on the question.

MATTHEW: And I just felt like - and he always answered the question like that. And I was like, you know, at least he's being honest. You know, yeah, he's different than the other guys, but he's being honest with what he feels.

DONVAN: Alan Schroeder, what does that tell us about the debate as a forum to understand Ron Paul?

SCHROEDER: Well, I think, you know, Ron Paul is one of these people who, in this series of debates, anyway, almost seems to have been, you know, sort of beamed in from another planet. He was so different from all the other candidates, not just stylistically, but in terms of the substance, as well.

MATTHEW: But, you know, he's sort of the odd man out here, that he is not a traditional politician. He's much more willing to, sort of, say what's on his mind and not censor himself and edit himself in a debate situation. That's a pretty unusual tactic for any politician to take in a live debate, though.

RUDIN: When you talk of out of the mainstream or a kind of different kind of candidate, I always think of Herman Cain, and for the longest time, he was getting away with - in my view, he was getting away with that, to me, simplistic 9-9-9 economic plan.

And yet when he was in an interview not long later after one of the debates, with, I guess it was the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and they asked about, you know, what about President Obama's position on Libya. You could see him sitting there for 20 minutes saying Libya, Libya, and like he had no idea what that was.

So, you know, it's nice to have tag lines, it's nice to have comfortable things you can fall back on, but you realize that the candidates don't really know what they're talking about. That comes through in debates, as well.

DONVAN: Matthew, thank you...

SCHROEDER: I think that's right, Ken, and I think that Herman Cain is a classic example of one of the dangers of debates, which is that the format, you know, involves such short little parcels of time, especially when you - early on when you've got the eight or nine people on the stage, that you can get away with soundbites, and you can get away with real cursory, superficial answers simply by virtue of the clock. There's just not time for anybody to have an opportunity to go very deep.

DONVAN: Matthew, thank you for your call, and we're going to go now to Tom(ph) in Tampa, Florida. Hi, Tom.

TOM: Hello.


TOM: Yes, my comment I believe came from the first debate, from Rick Perry, when he bragged that, in Texas, they'd executed I believe 256 people. And they just got roaring applause from the crowd there, and I was thinking, you know, this isn't - this is like an alien people for me. I can't believe that they're doing this. And I haven't heard anyone come down on the Republican Party for this, with any sort of backlash at all.

DONVAN: So did you feel that you saw the light in that moment, in some way, that you saw a truth that emerged from the debate?

TOM: Well, I didn't get a very good impression of Rick Perry from that, but I - the Republican Party didn't seem to be my party at that particular point in time. I said, you know, this is not what I believe in. That's - I would say the death penalty is something to be carried out with, you know, reluctance and regret and so on, not something to be bragged about.

DONVAN: All right. Tom, thank you for your comment. We're going to go now to Joshua in Raleigh, North Carolina.

JOSHUA: Yes. My - the moment for me was when Newt - which - I was leaning towards Newt prior to this moment, where he stood up and said that he would be the president to get black people off of welfare, which the statement in and of itself floored me for many reasons, one of which is anyone who does just a little research know that black people aren't the majority of the people on welfare. But that, to me, just showed his - I don't know. He has a very mean-spirited side to him, which first became apparent at that particular moment. So I'll take my answer off the air.

DONVAN: All right. Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: Well, you know, there's a good point to be made here. You know, you wonder when you hear Mitt Romney saying so many of the things he says during the debate, are these the things he really, really believes? Or has the Republican Party moved in such a way that for him to break away from that mold, he gets pilloried by the new - the Tea Party conservatives? So you wonder if -who's leading the party, whether it's the candidates leading the party, or as the case with - for example, with the executions, when the audience cheered that, you just wonder if the Republican Party has moved to such a point where the - for the candidates, they don't follow along at their peril.

Alan Schroeder, was there ever, in the televised era, some imagined golden age of debate when it was more substantive? I mean, you mentioned earlier that the first televised debate, Nixon-Kennedy, they never mentioned Vietnam. Was it ever better?

SCHROEDER: Yeah. I think the Kennedy-Nixon debates were quite substantive by today's standards. And I think that every cycle that goes along, maybe that level of substantiveness diminishes a little bit. Some of it is just that there are more debates. But there's also - the debates now are much more packaged than they've ever been. I'm thinking, this primary season, of one that CNN did, where they introduced each candidate with a little tagline - you know, Newt Gingrich, the big thinker, Michele Bachmann, the firebrand, Jon Huntsman, the diplomat, et cetera, et cetera - with the music and the images and all of this stuff. And so the debate...

DONVAN: It was world wrestling, really, wasn't it?

SCHROEDER: Yeah. It was world wrestling. It was a reality show. And so I think what we're seeing is that the, you know, everything is getting more superficial, the media, politics, everything. And so the debates are kind of reflected in that trend.

RUDIN: But in fairness, remember, when you're talking about Kennedy-Nixon and Ford-Carter, that was one-on-one, two general-election candidates. You didn't have eight people on the stage...


RUDIN: ...trying to get 30 seconds of clever soundbites. So it was a different format completely.

SCHROEDER: Yeah. That's right. And there is a big distinction to draw between the general election debates and the primary debates. One of the frustrations I'm having is now that we're down to four people, you know, this is where we should be having more debates, not fewer, because people are actually getting the time on the stage to say things.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Alan Schroeder, are candidates - would they be crazy, actually, to address the questions and take them on specifically, as opposed to using them as opportunities to launch into prepared speeches?

SCHROEDER: I think it would be so refreshing for the audience to have a candidate who was responsive and who was candid and who didn't duck the questions or fight with the moderator or argue about the format or any of the things that distract. And why somebody doesn't do that, I'm not sure, but, you know, these candidates come in so heavily programmed. There's a lot of, you know, ego involved. There's a lot of jockeying for time. And it is - I will say it is very difficult with eight or nine people on the stage. If you were the candidate, it's very difficult to sort of have any control over your performance and how you deliver it just given the logistics and the timing.

DONVAN: Ken Rudin, am I wrong, but does it also seems as though the audiences for the debates are programmed?

RUDIN: Well, I never saw - I mean, I've never seen this before. I think I saw a little bit of it in 2008. But they seem to be hooting - I mean, I saw this actually with Gore and Bradley in 2000. There was a debate, Democratic debate at the Apollo Theatre, and the audience was really yelling out things. But that's a pretty new phenomenon. I mean, I don't remember people screaming out. And Kennedy-Nixon, of course, it wasn't before a live audience. It was on television just with cameras.

But it becomes, you know, a gladiator battle. It becomes, you know, the coliseum with every mistake or good, you know, has responded with a hoot or a holler. And that's not the way you get any kind of dialogue working.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Doug from San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Doug. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DOUG: Hi. Thanks for having me.


DOUG: Something that stood out for me in the last debate was when the moderator asked each candidate to describe themselves using one word, one word only. And I think all the candidates lost a great opportunity to really emphasize how conservative they were. (technical difficulties) has been calling himself severely conservative. But none of them use that word to describe themselves. In fact, Rick Santorum used the word courage, yet earlier in the debate, he admitted that he voted on something that he really didn't agree with, which showed me he had no courage.

DONVAN: And I want to ask you, Doug, about Alan Schroeder's point for you as a - let's say a consumer of this product, which is - seems to be what some of it is, at least. Do you judge the candidates badly for not answering the specific questions? Do you notice it? And do you - does it get to you?

DOUG: Absolutely. It - I'm a student of debates, actually, and it really irritates me and a lot of other people when the (technical difficulties) asks a very specific question, yet they give very broad answers and usually not even related to the question itself. So, yes, it doesn't provide a service, or it doesn't lead to inform the constituency to make a better decision. So I think the candidates do (technical difficulties) service by avoiding the question altogether.

DONVAN: All right. Ken Rudin?

RUDIN: And yet, earlier in the debate series, when Newt Gingrich said I'm not going to fall into one of those gotcha questions, that was the beginning of Newt Gingrich's rise in the Republican ranks, when he had the guts, I guess, or temerity to take on the moderator by saying I won't answer your question. I won't answer your gotcha questions. It's a typical media question. And he zoomed up in the polls because of that response.

DONVAN: Finally, I just would want to bring in an emailer who says: Why don't moderators take on these evasive politicians? Is it for ratings that they foster talking points and don't demand with their own conversational presence, that the figureheads in the stage are to be held to the same standards as someone you would debate at the dinner table? Good finish. I want to thank you very much Ken Rudin and Alan Schroeder for joining us on this edition of Political Junkie.

Coming up, Sandra Tsing Loh gives voice to a frustration felt by many adult children who are now caring for their elderly parents. Sometimes, she admits, she just wishes he would die. Have you lived this internal conflict? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.