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Michigan Republican gubernatorial debate: The keys to winning

A lesson in debate strategy

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DETROIT – Republican candidates for Michigan governor will face off in a debate tonight at Local 4 studios in Detroit.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, State Senator Patrick Colbeck and medical doctor Jim Hines will share the stage. You can learn more about the four candidates here.

You can also learn more about the hot-button issues that may arise in the debate by reading our debate preview. Some of these issues, such as the Flint water crisis, are likely to provoke contention among the candidates, but how can you determine who actually comes out on top?

How to win a debate

Winning a debate in a race for political office typically requires a Goldilocks strategy, neither too little or too much of the right ingredients.

Candidates should evoke a confident stage presence, yet not seem overbearing. They should clearly communicate what they would change if elected and how it would help voters, yet not get lost in the weeds of excessive information. They should distinguish themselves from their opponents, yet not step away from the party line.

Maintaining this balancing act for a full hour or more has proven difficult for many candidates in the past. Whichever Republican gubernatorial candidate walks the tightrope best tonight stands a good chance of making a positive impression with voters.

Choosing a moment to shine

In order to make their positive impression a lasting one, candidates should choose a moment to stand out from the herd. Ideally, it will become the clip from the debate that their campaign will want replayed again and again, singed into the minds of voters.

This can be an impassioned closing statement that effectively communicates a vision of Michigan with them in office, or it can entail taking an opponent to task over a single issue.

Candidates should be careful, though, when calling each other out. Quibbling can easily turn into needless bickering that distracts voters from the issues they care about. Candidates must choose their moment wisely, making sure to highlight one or more issues of importance on which they have better standing than the rest of the field.

What not to do

The most obvious way to lose a debate involves the ever-present threat of the political gaffe. An errant slip of the tongue, excessively stumbling over words or anything akin to an "oops" moment can overshadow the rest of the debate and even doom a campaign.

Aside from putting their foot in their mouth, candidates should avoid anything that causes them to look frantic under pressure. Debates are that rare time on a campaign trail where candidates clash face-to-face in a live, unscripted format. Therefore, the potential for flop sweat and strained rebuttals rises exponentially.

No matter how the substance of the debate is going, candidates should try to seem calm and in control at all times. Voters remember the ethos of a candidate far better than they remember the details of policy.

How to watch the debate

Tonight's Michigan Republican gubernatorial debate moderated by Devin Scillian will air live at 8 p.m. only on Local 4 and ClickOnDetroit.