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‘West Wing’ debate throws out the rules

Live episode blends in a few twists — but no talking heads
/ Source: The Associated Press

Who won the debate? That was up to each viewer of “The West Wing” to decide. No pundits came on afterward to spin the results.

But this fictional faceoff Sunday night had everything else, including a wishful vision of what a presidential debate might look like if its participants were willing to take off the gloves.

The ratings sweeps month stunt pulled in an estimated 9.6 million viewers, up from the 8.2 million “The West Wing” had been averaging this season, according to preliminary Nielsen Media Research figures. The NBC drama has lost about a third of its viewers this season with the move to Sunday nights.

In this live episode, make-believe Republican candidate Arnold Vinick startled his pretend Democratic rival, Matt Santos, by suggesting at the outset that their carefully negotiated rules of engagement be thrown out.

“When the greatest hero in the history of my party, Abraham Lincoln, debated, he didn’t need any rules,” declared Vinick (played by Alan Alda). “We could junk the rules.”

“OK, let’s have a real debate,” said Santos (Jimmy Smits).

However unlikely it might be that political opponents would agree to such a high-risk, no-holds-barred format, the trappings of the debate sure looked real enough: In their dark business suits, both candidates were stationed at lecterns in front of the customary blue background (that is, until midway through the hour, when both men called for hand microphones so they could roam the stage).

To add to the realistic feel, real-life TV news veteran Forrest Sawyer was on hand to moderate.

His first question went to Vinick: “What would you do to seal the Mexican border (to illegal immigration)?”

“Enforcement first, that’s my policy,” said the California senator. “I would double the border patrol.”

“I don’t know how you’re going to find room in the budget to double the border patrol with the tax cut you’re proposing,” fired back Santos, a Texas congressman.

A bit later, Santos promised a million jobs would be created in his first term.

“How many jobs will you create?” Sawyer asked Vinick.

“None,” he replied. “Entrepreneurs create jobs. Business creates jobs. The president’s job is to get out of the way.”

Inevitably, the term “liberal” was contested, as well.

“Republicans have tried to turn ‘liberal’ into a bad word,” said Santos. “Well, liberals ended slavery in this country.”

“A Republican president ended slavery,” Vinick retorted.

“Yes, a LIBERAL Republican, Senator. What happened to THEM?”

But there was much more to their give-and-take, which fell into a pattern of lively exchange, even heated confrontation — the sort of telling clash that actual presidential debates never permit. It was substantial, at times downright wonkish, and a remarkable contrast to the choreographed, antiseptic real thing.

The performance — a blend of scripted dialogue and improvisation — was repeated three hours later in another live airing for West Coast viewers. The actors and Sawyer pulled off the latter half of the double-header smoothly and without major glitches.

This special episode was hyped as a signal event in the ongoing campaign to determine which candidate will inherit the White House from Democratic incumbent Jeb Bartlet (Martin Sheen), whose administration has been the centerpiece of “The West Wing” since the drama’s premiere six years ago.

Exactly when election day will take place has not been announced, although it is expected sometime this season. And who will be the victor? Both Alda and Smits claim not to know their characters’ fate, while the series’ producers hint the outcome may not have been decided.

As for viewers, they won’t be able to cast their ballots. Even so, the Vinick-Santos presidential debate supplied a lot to think about for would-be voters in the audience, who, among other things, might have been left wondering: Why won’t real candidates debate this way?