Q&A: Jennifer Granholm on the Secrets of Debate Prep

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Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 6, 2012

Tina Fey isn’t the only woman who has done a notable impression of Sarah Palin. In 2008, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm played the Alaskan in mock debates with Joe Biden. As this cycle’s presidential candidates prepared for Wednesday night’s face-off, TIME chatted with Granholm about what goes on behind those closed doors — and why the Current TV host has predicted that Obama will lose the first matchup.

What is the most important part of preparing for a debate?

Definitely making sure that the stand-in is armed with the toughest facts, the hardest questions, the most uncomfortable issues that the candidate has to be prepared to respond to. It requires a good amount of research, to make sure he’s armed with everything that might possibly come up.

So is reading briefing books and anticipating questions more important than the time spent sparring with a stand-in?

There is no substitute for being on your feet, getting the time and the feel for how to respond.

How did you become the Palin stand-in during Biden’s debate prep in 2008?*

The campaign called and asked whether I would do it. I was the only other female governor with kids, and I knew her because we served together as governors, even though her time [in office] was fairly short.

Besides having similar biographies, what makes a good stand-in?

It’s important to have a good relationship with the candidate. It’s like reading a terrible opposition research memo about yourself in front of a whole bunch of people. It’s just an unpleasant experience, so having somebody that you’re comfortable with is very important.

When you played Palin, what were you concentrating on — mannerisms or tone or subjects she might turn to?

I wasn’t Tina Fey. But I did watch all of her debates. I studied her positions. I knew where she was coming from, in terms of being connected to her state and feeling like she was there as an advocate on behalf of Alaska, being independent. I internalized a lot of that. And when we were actually doing the mock debates, I wore a red suit and had my glasses on. Oh, yeah. You betcha.

How secretive is the debate-prep process?

It’s very closed-door. You want to make sure you have an environment that makes the candidate feel as comfortable as he can, in light of the fact that you’re going to be putting him through the wringer. It’s an intimate experience, though there are quite a few people there.

Who’s in the room besides the candidate and the stand-in?

You’ve got researchers and people who know the policies. When Biden was selected, he suddenly had to get up to speed on what then Senator Obama’s positions were, because he was going to be grilled about that. So there was a blending of teams — some people from the Biden campaign and some people from the Obama campaign. There are people there who can sort of marry their policies, as well as the folks like their chief of staff.

Will that be a big advantage for Biden and Obama this time around, knowing each other so intimately?

They won’t have the same issues, in terms of there being daylight between them, like there was in 2008. And there’s an opportunity for them to go after Romney and Ryan for that very reason, because Romney hasn’t fully absorbed all the positions of Ryan, and vice versa.

You put it in that order — Romney absorbing Ryan more than Ryan absorbing Romney?

Ryan’s positions have been so clear, so out there, so available, so controversial.

You recently predicted that Obama would lose the first debate. Then you suggested that the media might assign him a loss whether he deserves a win or not. Can you explain that?

The first time, I mentioned two reasons why I think he’s going to lose. One is, he’s not in debate shape in the same way that Romney is. But more importantly, the media does not like a lopsided race, and it’s appearing to be lopsided at the moment. So in order to sustain the race, I think there will be a narrative of the comeback-kid Mitt Romney.

The candidates have been busy playing the low-expectations game. Are you just helping Obama be self-deprecating?

No, I’m just looking at it purely from who’s in practice and who’s not in practice … Part of that might be that the incumbent is confronted, on this national stage, in a way that he is not usually confronted … I don’t discount that he’s a good speaker, but he does speak in paragraphs, and debates are not the place to do that.

This time, you’ll be analyzing the debate as a TV host. How much of the debate’s impact comes from the debate itself, and how much is from what the media say about it in the days following?

The media obviously has a huge role in characterizing it. A lot of everyday citizens watch the debate and think the candidates did an O.K. job, then come down on one side or the other afterward depending on what they hear. But the debate certainly can build momentum or stop momentum. That’s really where Romney’s opportunity is.

People can easily find news outlets that will pick the winner they want. Does that mean we perhaps shouldn’t concentrate on who won or lost?

No. It’s all part of the conversation. People don’t want to hear a false equivalency. People don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, they both did fairly well.’ People in general want to know that somebody won and somebody lost. And they want to be smart enough to be at the watercooler the next day and know who that is.

* This year’s mock-debate playbill: Ohio Senator Rob Portman is playing President Obama, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is playing Mitt Romney, Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen is playing Paul Ryan, and former solicitor general Ted Olson is playing Joe Biden.

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