8 People Who Played Presidential Candidates in Mock Debates
By Julia Davis
You’ve probably heard that Barack Obama recruited Massachusetts senator and ketchup-magnate-by-marriage John Kerry to play Mitt Romney in mock debates. But Obama certainly isn’t the first president to fine-tune his skills through pseudo smackdowns. In fact, almost every presidential candidate in recent years has hired a surrogate sparring partner. Here are 8 all-star stand-ins and the politicians they portrayed.
1. Television Monitor as Jimmy Carter (1976)
Gerald Ford staged the first full-scale practice sessions in 1976. Ford had a few different people play his opponent, Jimmy Carter. But when a human sparring partner wasn’t around, Ford used a television monitor to play sound bites from Carter’s interview with Meet the Press. Mock panelists asked the monitor questions, and Carter’s pre-taped response would play back. To practice looking confident, Ford was supposed to gaze forcefully at his TV opponent during the replays.
2. Samuel Popkin as Ronald Reagan (1980)
At first, Jimmy Carter thought the notion of practicing with a “dummy opponent” was nuts. But the incumbent president softened his stance when he was forced to square off with show business veteran Ronald Reagan.
Carter hired political science professor Sam Popkin to play ol’ Dutch. Popkin studied Reagan’s rhetoric extensively and devised a strategy memo for outwitting him called “Popping Balloons.” Popkin told Carter if he couldn’t beat one of Reagan’s stories with a fact, he should try to beat it with another story. He also tried to familiarize Carter with his opponent’s folksy oratory style by recycling old Reagan speeches during debates.
3. David Stockman as Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale (1980 and 1984)
Eager to master the art of full-scale debate rehearsal, Ronald Reagan had his garage converted into a professional quality television studio and hired congressman David Stockman to stand in for Jimmy Carter. The practice proved helpful, helping to familiarize the veteran actor with a debate format . . . and landing Stockman a job as budget director once Reagan was elected.
But in 1984, all that practice backfired. Reagan’s team believed Mondale would be a scrappy fighter, so they encouraged Stockman to really bully the president during mock debates. Stockman’s brow beatings destroyed the president’s confidence – to the point where his wife asked, “What have you done to my husband?” After a rough first debate, the Reagan campaign staged a pep rally at the president’s Kansas City hotel to boost his spirits before the second face-off. Reagan rebounded – and ended up winning 49 out of the 50 states.
4. Fred Thompson as Bill Clinton (1996)
Bob Dole hired former actor Fred Thompson to fill the shoes of Bill Clinton. A fellow Southerner, Thompson could replicate Clinton’s raspy drawl with astounding accuracy. And when it came to attacking Dole, Thompson didn’t pull any punches. “I tried to beat him down!” Thompson once told NPR. “If you can generate a bit of hostility, that’s a good thing.”
5. Bob Barnett as George H.W. Bush/ Dick Cheney (Many Times)
This Washington D.C. attorney played a Republican rival in five campaigns – filling in for George H.W. Bush in 1984, 1988, and 1992 and Dick Cheney in 2000 and 2004.
Barnett’s relentless baiting drove his mock opponents crazy. During his 1984 practice debates with Geraldine Ferraro, the vice presidential hopeful often became so irritated with Barnett that she walked over and slugged him on the arm. And after grueling 1992 debate preparations, Bill Clinton said, “I was just so glad I didn’t have to debate [him]. The election might have turned out differently.”
6. Judd Gregg as Al Gore/John Kerry (2000 and 2004)
New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg acted as Democratic doppelgangers in 2000 and 2004. For Gregg, playing Gore was a piece of cake. He claimed that the then-vice president was mechanical, scientific, and uber-predictable. But he had a tougher time playing Kerry. He maintained that the notoriously flip-flopping senator was hard to pin down because he went in a few different directions when he spoke.
But regardless of whom he was playing, Gregg’s job was to push George Bush’s buttons – and he was good at it. On one occasion in 2000, Gregg’s relentless bushwhacking (no pun intended) sent the presidential hopeful over the edge. Bush became flustered and started angrily repeating the same points in a raised voice. Worried that the pseudo sparring match had gotten too real, an aide stopped the debate to let things cool down.
7. Greg Craig as George W. Bush/John McCain (2004 and 2008)
In the past two elections, Democrats called on Washington lawyer (and former White House counsel) Greg Craig to prep presidential hopefuls to face-off with Republican rivals. Craig was no stranger to controversial debates – he won an acquittal for John W. Hinckley, Jr., the man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Moreover, Craig directed the team defending Clinton against impeachment following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The powerhouse attorney was no Dana Carvey; he didn’t mimic his doppelgangers’ body language or accents. Instead, he focused on suffocating his pseudo-opponents with airtight logic.
8. Rob Portman as Half the Democratic Party (1996-)
For years, Ohio congressman Rob Portman has been the GOP’s go-to guy for getting inside the heads of Democratic rivals. Since 1996, Portman’s filled the shoes of Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and even Hillary Clinton.
Portman had an uncanny ability to capture the mannerisms of the candidates – right down to subtle body movements and vocal pauses. Republicans claimed he magically “became Barack Obama” during the 2008 practice debates with John McCain. Rick Lazio, who ran against Clinton for the Senate, remarked on his astounding ability to channel the first lady – even without a wig or makeup. And Joe Lieberman jokingly referred to Portman as his alter ego. Lieberman once said, "I've tried on occasion when I couldn't make it to a speaking engagement to send Rob Portman."
And Three All-Star Vice-Presidential Stand-ins...
Jennifer Granholm as Sarah Palin
Tina Fey and Julianne Moore aren't the only women to portray Sarah Palin onstage. Michigan governor and fellow beauty pageant winner Jennifer Granholm helped Joe Biden practice debating the Alaska governor in 2008. Granholm studied Palin nonstop. To get in character, she wore glasses and a red suit. But did she go the extra mile and try her hand at that famously folksy Alaska accent? You betcha.
Randy Scheunemann as Joe Biden
To prep Palin for the 2008 vice presidential debates, neoconservative lobbyist Randy Scheunemann played Joe Biden. He really got into character – so much so that Palin could barely keep a straight face. Scheunemann peppered his performance with frequent mentions of “God love ya” and “literally.” He also copied Biden’s loquacious speaking style, going on rants about everything from gun control to his own mother.
But while Palin was certainly convinced by her faux-opponent’s performance, she kept accidentally calling him “O’Biden.” That’s when Scheunemann suggested that she take a folksy approach and start calling him “Joe.”
Dennis Eckart as Dan Quayle
Former Ohio Congressman Dennis Eckart had a lot in common with the then-vice president. Both were young, telegenic Midwesterners who loved golf. Eckart joked that he got into character by spending hours at the Congressional Country Club. Once he even went through a mock debate with a golf tee stuck behind his ear. Eckart, a former college actor, said he loved “getting into the head” of people he played. But when reporters asked him what he found inside Quayle’s head, he answered, “Room to maneuver.”