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San Antonio San-Express News

Carlos Guerra

Sunday, October 10, 2004

After the 32-page, minutia-filled contract the two major parties accorded to govern the presidential and vice- presidential debates became public, skepticism spread about what Americans could expect from rules that limit candidates to short answers, shorter rebuttals and ban their questioning and challenging each other.  

The loud public outcry may have contributed to the relaxed rules moderator Jim Lehrer allowed in the first "debate" that produced unexpected fireworks and the first real discussions of policy differences in the campaign.  

That set the tone for the subsequent meets that also were lively displays of differences and, hopefully, will make Wednesday's match-up the best of the four.  

The first face-off was "better than expected," said Chris Shaw of Open Debates, which wants more debates with rules that enable, instead of limit, discussion.  

"But it was also revealing when Kerry didn't have enough time to make his point," Shaw said, "so he referred people to his Web site."  

And too often, he added, "they just didn't answer questions, and there were no follow-ups on that."  

Also surprised was Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People, which wants greater limits on big money's role in politics because it limits important issue discussions.  

"Even with all the rules, and doing one on Friday night, they are still a good thing because very clear policy differences were brought out that will help voters decide," Lewis said.  

Given the influence of today's mass media, he says, money rules political discourse because most news media "don't carry much information about the candidates, only about the horse race."  

Voters must depend on pricey TV ads for political information, Lewis says, and all they really get is "fluff pieces, character assassinations or parodies of reality.  

"And if you're not in a battleground state and can't see the candidates in person," he adds, "you will get almost no information about the candidates."  

Thanks in part to manipulative campaign ads, he says, many think the war in Iraq has cost $200 billion, when that is the war's projected cost next year, and many blame Saddam Hussein for the attacks of 9-11, when he was totally unconnected to those events.  

"Something is wrong when people aren't getting basic facts right," Lewis says. He also believes the debates should be returned to the League of Women Voters and have freer, permanent rules that aren't renegotiated every four years.  

"We're in a war in Iraq, we have serious problems with terrorism and nuclear proliferation, trade and fiscal deficits, and with creating good-paying jobs, and other things," he chuckles, "and we don't have substantive debates?  

"The more the candidates can be seen as humans instead of reading scripts, the better," Lewis adds. "I would like more give-and-take, and to let the audience ask follow-up questions, and if it's not too orderly, well, hey, life is messy."  

Aside from more and freer debates, Lewis wants to end candidates' addiction to special interest money by providing viable hopefuls free air time for their ads.  

"Free air time was part of the original McCain-Feingold proposal, and we need to get it back," he says, "just like we need the Equal Time Doctrine back because people need to be exposed to all ideas.  

"The airways belong to the public and should provide entertainment and education," he says, "not to be a propaganda machine extension of a political party."