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The future TV debate matchups

AFTER SIX TV debates and umpteen joint appearances, the relative star quality of the nine contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination is coming into focus. Voters who have paid attention are already sensing who's got the media magic and who hasn't. With less than a year remaining before the general election, it is not too early to consider how each of the would-be nominees might stack up in a televised debate against President Bush. Carol Moseley Braun: Though this duo doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell, we can nonetheless relish the prospect of guy's guy Bush going mano-a-mano with a female opponent. Would he display the same condescending attitude that Papa Bush showed toward Geraldine Ferraro in 1984?

Advantage: Moseley Braun.

Dennis Kucinich: As performers Bush and Kucinich have something in common: just-below-the-surface rage. The difference: Bush manages to mask his perpetually perturbed state with shrugs and grins, while Kucinich cannot hide his disappointment at the unenlightened world around him. On TV as in life, wisecracks trump self-righteousness.

Advantage: Bush.

Al Sharpton: This dream match between America's wittiest politician and its most tongue-twisted would yield Super Bowl-sized ratings, if only for the incongruity of the pairing. Imagine the look on the president's face as one of Sharpton's verbal scuds strikes its target.

Advantage: Sharpton.

John Edwards: An Edwards-Bush meeting would be less a debate than a scene from the class struggle. The earnest, self-made son of a millworker taking on the smug, silver-spooned son of a president is the stuff of Frank Capra movies -- and in Capra movies we know who prevails.

Advantage: Edwards.

Richard Gephardt: Bush is not a natural communicator, and he knows it.

Gephardt is not a natural communicator, and he doesn't know it. As a debate opponent for the 43d President, the Missouri congressman plays into Bush's hand in several ways: He's dull on TV, his features and coloring don't register on camera, and he exudes all the glamour of a Washington bureaucrat.

Advantage: Bush.

Joe Lieberman: If Lieberman's performance against Dick Cheney in the 2000 vice presidential match-up is any guide, Lieberman the presidential debater would do everything short of shining Bush's shoes onstage.

Advantage: Bush.

John Kerry: In effect, Bush has already debated John Kerry -- when he went up against Al Gore in 2000. Like Gore, Kerry lacks the savoir-faire to make love to the camera. He talks not like an average Joe but like an average senator. His jokes aren't cracked, they're detonated. As Bush knows from experience, in a TV battle between the pompous guy and the goofball, the goofball carries the day.

Advantage: Bush.

Wesley Clark: Clark-Bush has the potential to be a fascinating debate, if Clark can bust through the media straitjacket in which he now seems stuck.

It may be too late for Clark to steal a page from Ross Perot's media playbook and use television to position himself as a mold-breaking storyteller -- an outsider, not another double-talking pol. Perot walked away with the first 1992 presidential debate, even though most of the audience thought he was nuts. Imagine how a sane political maverick might fare. And imagine the costuming possibilities: Clark could wear his general's uniform and Bush his Tom Cruise flight suit. Advantage: Too close to call.

Howard Dean: Live TV is about danger, and no debating combination could be more dangerous than these two shoot-from the-lip, Eastern Establishment scions. Dean's bluntness and Bush's plain-spokenness, similar in so many ways, constitute two highly combustible elements. Put these two firecrackers on a stage together, and the TV promos write themselves: "Bush versus Dean: this time it's personal."

Advantage: Too close to call.

This year's nine Democratic candidates are discovering firsthand something audiences have intuited since Kennedy met Nixon: Television debates have the power to make stars out of some participants and schmucks out of others. As Democratic voters choose the individual who will challenge the incumbent president, they should remember that, among other things, they're selecting the individual who will co-star opposite George W. Bush on live TV next fall. Unlike his opponent, Bush will be out of practice as a debater. But unlike his opponent, he goes into the show with top billing.

Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University journalism professor, is author of "Presidential Debates: 40 years of High-Risk TV."

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