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A Strange Way to Pick Presidential Candidates

Scott Olson/Getty Images
The Republican presidential contenders have already faced off in a number of debates, with more on the schedule in the next few months. But is the plethora of debates changing how voters view candidates for the White House?

Presidential debates, says NBC News Political Director and Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd, are now part of the winnowing process. Instead of going to a small state and wooing caucus-goers, Republican presidential hopefuls are going on national cable to see if they can resonate with the voters.

With 26 GOP debates currently scheduled between May 5, 2011, and March 19, 2012 (17 of them before the Iowa caucuses), the fight for the party’s nomination is now played out in living rooms and dens around the country as much as in diners, candidate coffees and small events in Iowa and New Hampshire.

On television, this year’s debates have drawn more than the handful of political junkies and campaign professionals who once tuned in. They have become big events.

Last week’s CNBC debate drew more than 3.3 million viewers, while Saturday’s CBS/National Journal debate pulled in 5.3 million viewers. An October CNN debate drew 5.6 million, more than “The Biggest Loser” on NBC, and a September debate on Fox drew 6.1 million viewers.

If Chuck Todd is correct — and I have no doubt that he is — we now have a nominating process that values certain skills and abilities in candidates that have nothing to do with governing.

You say we never did? Well, maybe. But at least real people got a chance to see their potential president up close, to ask a question and listen to a response. Businessman Herman Cain spent little of his time in Iowa or New Hampshire during his brief ride to the top of the polls.

Debates reward the quick quip, the snappy rejoinder, the cutting comeback and the clever response. Because some of the fallout from a debate is generated by news reports and chatter after the actual event, a sound bite played over and over the day after the debate can be more important for one of the candidates than all of the talk during the event.

Debate skills might be useful if we had a question time in Congress the way the British prime minister has in the House of Commons, but we don’t.

A quick repartee is a nice weapon at a dinner party, but it simply isn’t vital when trying to decide how to respond if Israel launches a pre-emptive strike on Iran, how to close the deficit or what an administration should do in reaction to the next crisis.

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