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For Debate Prep, Send In The Stand-Ins


And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

This past week, we found out that the Obama campaign has picked Senator John Kerry as the stand-in for Mitt Romney when the president will practice for debates. Now, being a debate stand-in is actually serious business. So we turned to a couple of people with experience who could give John Kerry some advice. Here's how former Senator Fred Thompson might play Mitt Romney.

FRED THOMPSON: You know, the president, after spending almost a billion dollars in a stimulus package, has unemployment still over 8 percent and not getting any better, and half a million people fewer are working than when Obama took office, and he's added $5 trillion to the debt, more than all the other presidents put together. So bingo.


THOMPSON: You know? What are you going to do with that?

RAZ: Back in 1996, Fred Thompson played Bill Clinton in mock debates against Senator Bob Dole who was the Republican nominee.

THOMPSON: I went back and reviewed, you know, Clinton's positions on the various issues, things he had used in attack mode against his opponents.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: And that's why we got a country with 10 and a half million more jobs and record numbers of new businesses and rising incomes and falling crime rates and...

BOB DOLE: You know, the president reminds me sometimes of my brother Kenny, who's no longer alive, but Kenny was a great talker, and he used to tell me things that I knew were not quite accurate, so we always had a rule. We'd divide it by six. Well, maybe in your case, maybe just two.

THOMPSON: It was a serious business, and I put a lot of effort into it, and I tried to beat him. I tried to beat him down. I think that if you can generate a little bit of hostility in the atmosphere and get your candidate's blood flowing a little bit faster, that's a good thing. I think it's a good thing to have an audience. It's going to make them a little sharper. It's going to make them want to - even in that circumstance, want to do well.

RAZ: A lot of people, of course, know you as an actor. Did you approach the role of Bill Clinton in an improvisational way, or did you approach it as a politician?

THOMPSON: No. Totally as a politician. I don't think of trying to adopt mannerisms or look like or sound like the person that you're representing. I guess there is a similarity to acting that I hadn't thought about much. They put you in this makeup, they set you in a chair before an audience, and then everybody in America practically is watching you for a slip-up. And your goal is to act naturally. Well, nobody can feel very natural under all those circumstances, but it's the difference between regular season and the playoffs.

RAZ: Obviously, you prepared Senator Dole as best you could. That being said, Senator Thompson, at the time, all the pundits, they, you know, they overwhelmingly said Bill Clinton won those debates.


RAZ: Did you feel like, oh, man, I didn't do as good of a job as I should have done?

THOMPSON: I don't recall feeling that way.


THOMPSON: You can't put too much responsibility on the debate coach. You can't get past the basics. Bill Clinton is just a, you know, a good debater.

RAZ: Before we let you go, we have to hear a little bit of your Bill Clinton impression.

THOMPSON: Well, I don't know if I can do that or not, but I'll try a little bit.


RAZ: Well, Senator Fred Thompson, thank you so very much.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

RAZ: We also called up former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. She stood in as Sarah Palin four years ago to help Joe Biden prepare for the vice presidential debate.

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: I went back and looked at the debates that she had when she ran for governor of Alaska. I studied what she was saying up to that point, to the extent that I could. I became sort of a Palinotologist.

RAZ: That's interesting. Did you channel Sarah Palin? Did you become her?

GRANHOLM: No. I totally became her, at least I tried to be. I'm no Tina Fey, but I wore glasses and a red suit and tried to anticipate how she would answer the questions - tried to get under his skin so that you could provoke him, get him used to being able to respond to difficult questions. And we anticipated almost everything, except for perhaps the wink in that debate.


SARAH PALIN: What do you expect, a team of mavericks. Of course, we're not going to agree 100 percent on everything and...

RAZ: What specifically do you remember? I mean, was there something that you said during the mock debates that you actually saw happen during the real debates?

GRANHOLM: Yeah. Clearly, she was trying to channel John McCain.

PALIN: I think that's why we need to send the maverick from the Senate and put him in the White House. And I'm happy to join him there.

GRANHOLM: The whole maverick thing, the ability to be a team of mavericks.

PALIN: And I've joined this team that is a team of mavericks.

GRANHOLM: All of those things were things that we had anticipated. It was a tough debate. He had to come across, even though he's a Washington guy and he knows all that stuff, it's a challenging thing for a man debating a woman because you don't want to come across as, you know, beating her up in some way.

RAZ: Let's listen to a clip. Biden had just said twice - he was talking about the commanding general in Afghanistan. He said that he didn't think a surge in Iraq would work in Afghanistan. Biden did not name the general. It was, at the time, was General David McKiernan. Here is Palin's response, and she is going to get his name wrong.


PALIN: Well, first, McClellan did not say definitively that the surge...

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, our commanding general did say that...

RAZ: He lets it go, Governor Granholm. He passes it up. Is that something that he was kind of prepped to do?

GRANHOLM: Yes, absolutely. He was not going to - I mean, obviously, that was not intentional on her part - but he was not going to try to appear to condescend in any way. And we tried 20 million different ways to get him to take the bait.

RAZ: That's former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. She's now the host of "The War Room with Jennifer Granholm" on Current at 9 p.m. Eastern. Jennifer Granholm, thank you so much.

GRANHOLM: You betcha.


PALIN: Thank you so much. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.