So Peter Mandelson has set the debate dog running today, suggesting that Gordon Brown would be keen on a head to-head televised confrontation with David Cameron ahead of the election.
Until now Gordon Brown, like Tony Blair before him, has ruled out any US-style personal debate. Blair didn’t need to take the risk of debating his Tory opponents, whom he would have almost certainly run rings round in this format (Blair vs IDS would have been a fun one to watch), as he was so far ahead in the polls.
By contrast, Gordon Brown has never wanted to subject his clunky, inflexible oratorical style to the fast paced and clinical nature of the debate format. Indeed, it is difficult to see him landing anything approaching a knock-out blow on the more eloquent, breezy Cameron.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. Far, far behind in the polls, the PM is in need of what the Americans call a hail-mary pass. If Lord Mandelson’s hints are being read correctly, Gordon Brown realises that a game-changing debate performance is a long shot, but it’s worth a punt.
Even this may not be enough, as experts are divided on whether American presidential debates have any sort of meaningful impact on a contest. There is general agreement that only a truly awful comment or mistake, like George Bush dismissively looking at his watch while a questioner from the audience was discussing the personal effects of the recession, can really shift opinion. Even Sarah Palin managed to get through her VP debate with Joe Biden last year relatively unscathed.
But history also contains some fairly clear examples of debates swinging a tight contest. Richard Nixon’s defeat to JFK in the 1960 election has been ascribed to Nixon’s debate performance, where he looked both sweaty (he was ill) and shifty (he wasn’t used to the new medium of live television). While I don’t necessarily buy the Brown-is-the-new-Nixon meme, and Cameron is certainly no JFK, a comparison of the aesthetics of the 1960 debate will probably not work in the Prime Minister’s favour.
Perhaps a better case study for both men is a wonderful live Presidential debate held just a short while ago. Both the elder, solid establishment candidate and the eloquent young upstart performed to the peak of their abilities, and raised the level of interest in, and respect for, politics across the country as a result. You can re-live one of the greatest moments of this debate here: