Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting...

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Everyone knows that tonight's debate will not draw a large broadcast audience. But it will draw a large audience in the subset of the population that will drive the race for governor in the weeks to come-- pundits, reporters, columnists... also known as all of us in the media you love to hate.

The one hour event at CSU Sacramento, sponsored by the California Broadcasters Association, begins at 6:00 pm. It will be broadcast statewide, including on public radio through a joint production of KQED and Capital Public Radio (only CPR will air it live, however, with an extra half hour of post-game analysis).

So, what should you watch for? Here's what I'm keeping an eye on:

* Format: The Phil Angelides campaign grumbled about tonight's format, which features both men sitting down and a loose Q&A with moderator Stan Statham, the CBA's president (also a former TV anchorman and GOP legislator). Angelides wanted to stand, and wanted a panel of reporters asking questions. But in reality, I think this format may actually work better for him, and possibly worse for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Why?

First, Angelides needs cogent, well thought-out answers... which are sometimes hard to fit in a tightly controlled 60 second/30 second rebuttal kind of setting. Second, a loosely structured format might result in Schwarzenegger occasionally tying himself in a few verbal knots. The governor's best showings, from his vantage point, usually come through short soundbites that stay on message, even if he never actually answers the question he's asked (which is often the case when he talks to reporters). The longer he talks, the more chances for one of Schwarzenegger's well-known gaffes. If the Democratic challenger embraces the format, he could do well. However, he will also need to be careful not to come across in this loose format as sounding too smart, or smug.

* The 11 O'Clock News: You just know that both guys will walk on stage ready to deliver that memorable 7-9 second soundbite, custom-made for tonight's TV news. Who will get it in first, and who's will stick? This is one of the governor's favorite shticks, one he played to perfection in the 2003 debate with Arianna Huffington. You can almost predict how it goes down... Schwarzenegger jabs Angelides about taxes, Angelides jabs Schwarzenegger about George W. Bush... and everyone waits for a reaction from the audience (and the media) to see how it played.

* The "Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations": That's a line borrowed from President Bush, but it often applies to political debates, too. Both sides always portray their opponent as a pro, and their guy as barely able to hold his own. That way, if their guy actually does fare poorly... then hey, we told you so! But if he should actually land a few punches... well, hold the phone, he clearly won!

The reality is both of these men bring strengths to the table. Angelides is very good at thinking on his feet; and Schwarzenegger has enough TV charisma to light up a small Sierra foothills town. Sure, either of them could tank. But both could also end up much better than their handlers let on.

A Morsel of Substance... Please?!? Televised debates are often like that menu special that sounded tastier in your imagination than it really was when it arrived at the table. The biggest problem is that candidates rarely say anything of substance. Pollsters have told us this year that California voters care about immigration, education, education, the economy, the state budget, and the environment. How many of these will really be talked about tonight in any substantive way?

And Then What? This will probably be the only time the two major candidates for governor of the world's sixth largest economy get together to make a pitch for why they should have the job. It may take a few days for those of us in the media to sort out the winners and losers (and we probably shouldn't even try), but one wonders whether the dynamics of this race will change at all... even a little... once the cameras are turned off at 7:00pm.

Angelides is clearly behind in most every public and private poll. Will this debate give him the long hoped for boost that starts bringing money for TV ads and a new buzz to the campaign? Can he force the governor to explain the transformations from Arnold 2003 to Arnold 2004 to the Arnold 2005 to today? Or... does the governor give one of his command performances that artfully dodges Angelides' best chance for a campaign comeback? Can he clearly reinforce his campaign's message that he's in the mainstream of California politics, while Angelides is a raging liberal that loves big government?

I know, politics on a Saturday night? Still, do yourself a favor and tune in... even for part of it. Just don't get your hopes up.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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