Is seven too many for the upcoming debate?

Justin Webb says there will be both winners and losers when you stack the debate roster.

Seriously, how does this work? Seven politicians standing at podiums hoping to, well, to do what? To capture attention? To build a reputation? To keep one?

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Luckily for all those party managers given the task of coming up with answers: there is somewhere to look.

Not, of course, at the American presidential debates: with the exception of 1992 and the brief but real challenge of the independent candidate Ross Perot, presidential debates are between two people and have been analysed way beyond any sensible person’s capacity for concentration.

Oh, and they make no difference to the result.

No, forget the presidential debates, but look instead at the step that comes before those debates: the head-to-head-to-head-to-head combat between the candidates trying to win their party nomination. And focus on one particular set of conflicts: the snorting, hissing, flailing beast of a train-wreck (hey, mixed metaphors were the least of their problems) that was the Republican party debate set-up in 2012.

You think there will be no drama possible when there are seven politicians at the podiums? Think again: plenty is possible: from assassination to self-immolation and every stop in between. And seven was one of the smaller numbers the Republicans chose during that crazy period – a period in which they debated not once, not twice, not three times… But 20. Yes. Twenty debates.

As many as nine candidates, depending on who dropped out or failed to show or tripped and fell on the way to the stage.

We’re not going to do that.

But what we are going to see is a similar number of people and a similar range of popular knowledge of who they are and what they stand for; from household name to plucky outsider. Can they break through?

Yes: in both good ways and bad. I offer as my evidence the Governor of Texas Rick Perry. Mr Perry had a stonking start. In one of the early debates he pointed out – to wild audience applause – that during his time at the helm his state had put to death 234 people.

But having “hit that one out of the park”, as they say in Houston, he then pressed the self-destruct button, and again it was one single issue that did for him. Hoping to score as heavily as he did with the execution enthusiasm, he announced in a later debate that there were three government departments he would abolish. One was Commerce, one was Education, and the other… Oh man, he forgot the third! Appalled viewers wondered if he had suffered a stroke. In the end he had to give up, it would not come: “Sorry, oops,” he said. 

And he was toast. That is the point about the seven-person format. It still exposes you when your brain melts; in fact, it hurts you more than it might in a one-to-one interview with a reporter, because in this format, the alternative choices are lined up alongside you. Grinning.

And what if the candidates get over their nerves and manage to relax, as Mitt Romney had managed to do by the time of the 12th Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa? Well, here, too, there are pitfalls aplenty. Mr Romney — joshing with another candidate — decided to offer a bet on which of them was right on some matter of fact. Ten thousand dollars was the suggested wager. From a man whose wealth was a campaign issue. Oops, again.

So hold on to your hats. The seven-person format is unlikely to lead to informed debate about the nature of the universe. They will not come up with a cure for cancer. But there will be barbs, and one-liners, and drama, and winners and losers. If you think that matters: do watch. 

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Watch The ITV Leaders’ Debate Thursday 2nd April at 8:00pm on ITV