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Los Angeles Times

Sunday, June 12, 2004

Raise your hand if you stayed awake through all three presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.

Right. With pre-selected questions, deferential moderators and minimal follow-up queries, televised presidential debates in recent years have devolved into yawners that turn off more voters than they enlighten. No surprise that the audience for these glorified photo ops has plummeted; 25 million fewer Americans saw the 2000 debates than the 1992 face-off. That drop in viewership is reflected in basement-level voter turnout.

The problem is that the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit corporation that has sponsored the debates since 1988, runs this contest largely in the interests of the two major parties, not the voters. Commission members the big-name representatives for the Democratic and Republican standard-bearers agree to exclude third-party candidates, even those like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan who draw significant voter support in the polls. Moreover, by negotiating every detail in advance including the shape of the podiums, the space that candidates must keep between themselves and, of course, the nature of the questioning they ensure that the meetings yield mostly chewed-over sound bites.

The upstart Citizens Debate Commission believes this year's debates could be more illuminating. The recently formed bipartisan group includes heavyweights like Heritage Foundation founding President Paul Weyrich, Jehmu Greene of Rock the Vote, and TransAfrica Forum founder Randall Robinson, along with a growing roster of organizational backers. They want a more spontaneous format and a bigger crowd on stage. Follow-up questions should challenge evasive or misleading answers, and there should be some candidate-to-candidate questioning, as well as rebuttals.

Third-party candidates can raise pressing issues and energize voters. Some even have a chance of victory, or, as Nader demonstrated four years ago, they can play the spoiler. That's why the commission believes that debates should include serious alternative candidates. To avoid a circus, it would limit participation to those who qualify for enough state ballots to make an electoral college majority possible and who achieve at least 5% voter support in national polls.

Voters grown cynical after a ceaseless barrage of attack ads deserve to hear the candidates discuss issues face to face in a spontaneous, unscripted format. Presidential debates provided that forum once and could again. The Citizens Debate Commission plans to host five 90-minute debates across the nation this fall at small colleges. If one of the major candidates signs on, the other will face substantial pressure to join him. Sen. Kerry? President Bush?