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The Search for Stature in Tonight’s Debate

Size matters. So do sighs. Size matters. So do sighs.
Size matters. So do sighs. Photographs by Matt Rourke & Evan Vucci—AP

Tonight, in front of a prime-time television audience of millions, two fierce, trash-talking, and heavily bruised rivals will hurl themselves at each other in a brutal contest for domination.

But for those who don’t plan on watching the Falcons and Saints square off on Monday Night Football, there is another battle worth watching.

The first one-on-one debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is finally here—bringing the partisan energy and anxiety felt by untold millions of voters to their seasonal apex. It all comes to a head at 9 p.m. Eastern time, when the Democratic and Republican nominees for president will take the stage at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex at New York’s Hofstra University and a projected “Super Bowl-sized” audience will begin yelling at their televisions.

The political media—the scrum of professional TV talkers and perma-panelists—will seize upon every gotcha moment, every zinger, every missed jab as if scoring a prize fight. They’ll replay the one-liners, awkward expressions, and exaggerated exhalations (think of poor Al Gore’s schoolmarm sighs in his presidential debate with George W. Bush in 2000).

But what will matter to voters—or at least to the handful who haven’t already, determinedly, settled on one camp—won’t be the sighs, but rather the size of the two candidates. “Size,” that is, as the legendary writer Richard Ben Cramer captured it in his equally legendary chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes.

Size, in this sense, isn’t physical stature, but how their minds and miens measure up to the enormity of the role of commander-in-chief—“the size of a President,” as Cramer put it. Oval Office size, here, isn’t a booming voice (President Reagan’s wasn’t). It isn’t height or hair (Ike had neither). Think of it, rather, as an unflagging, imperturbable spirit, as a confidence—and competence—that instills confidence in others. Somebody you feel deeply comfortable with running the show on a global stage.

But voters won’t see that Presidential scale in a candidate if the candidate doesn’t believe it himself or herself. As Cramer wrote, they have “to see in themselves a figure of size to bestride a chunk of history.”

Look for that tonight in the two nominees on stage. That’s what it takes.