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How Challengers Succeed in Debates

President Ford's gaffe on Poland dominated the post-debate coverage in 1976.
President Ford's gaffe on Poland dominated the post-debate coverage in 1976.

Thursday's presidential debate is of crucial importance to Sen. John Kerry. The Democratic challenger has been falling behind President Bush in the polls in recent weeks. NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts looks back on the debates of successful presidential challengers to see how the one-on-one debate helped them win.

"The thing to keep in mind is the whole affect of the debate has at least as much importance as the words themselves," Roberts tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "People get a sense of how the man stands and smiles and relates to the other man.... There have been some studies that show that [on television] the same person wins with the sound off as with the sound on."

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Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.

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