Debate prep advice from a pro: Yup, practice those zingers

Olivier Knox

When it comes to presidential debates, a 20-year Democratic veteran of politics has some good advice: Punches are good, counterpunches are better, questions are mostly predictable—and the key to success is to practice, practice, practice.

Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff to both Al Gore and Joe Biden, penned the memo in June 2012 for the think tank Third Way. It came to the attention of Yahoo News thanks to ace Washington Post political reporter Karen Tumulty.

[Slideshow: Great debate moments]

"There are few activities that candidates undertake that hold so much opportunity and so much risk" as debates, Klain writes. "While you can lose a debate any time, you can only win it in the first 30 minutes."

And, he notes, "while the importance of one-liners and 'zingers' in debates is probably overestimated, preparing a set of such material is an important part of debate prep." (The Obama campaign has been mocking Mitt Romney mercilessly for reportedly practicing zingers.)

[Related: 5 things to watch for in the debate]

"But in addition to working on such 'punches,' be sure to also devote some time to developing 'counterpunches': lines you will deploy in response to your opponents' favorite lines," Klain writes. "If you develop five zippy replies to your opponents' five most commonly-used lines, the odds are high that you will get a chance to use two or three. And remember to also game out your opponents' likely replies to your most common lines: nothing is more effective in a debate than a counter-counterpunch!"

Without further ado, Klain's rules, abbreviated:

- Envision a "dream postdebate headline" and mold your strategy to getting it.

- Come up with three things that you absolutely must say in the debate.

- "Candidates are creatures of habit," Klain writes. "Read up on what your opponent has been saying." That's because 90 percent of what he or she says will "have come out of his mouth in the week before the debate." Klain also writes that Lloyd Bentsen's devastating "you're no Jack Kennedy" whack at Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice presidential debate emerged from debate prep, when an aide showed Bentsen recent remarks from Quayle comparing himself to JFK.

- Read the local papers, especially if the debate is a town-hall format.

- Figure out what questions you're likely to get. "A typical 90-minute televised debate will involve just 18 questions. More than 2/3rds of them are absolutely, positively predictable," Klain writes.

- "Practice, practice, practice," he says. "Even Bill Clinton was rocked in mock debates in 1996 until he buckled down and practiced." Mock debates are the best practice, and the most important thing about those is the stand-in for your opponent. The best "aren't afraid to launch harsh attacks on the candidate: batting practice isn't very useful if the pitcher only lobs softballs," Klain notes.

- Get brutally honest feedback from aides. "Make sure the team includes folks who can tell you when your answers stink, your jokes aren't funny, and your attacks have missed the mark," he writes. "Say 'no' to 'yes men' in debate prep."

- Do a walk-through of the site to make sure you're properly lighted and in the right position.

The rest of the advice is worth a read.