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The Tennessean

Sunday , June 20, 2004

Every four years, leaders of the two major political parties devise a system of debates that exposes their presidential nominees to as little risk as possible.

Every answer is precisely timed. Follow-up questions aren't allowed. The shape, the height and the position of the podiums, the debate site, the moderators and the backdrop are carefully negotiated. The candidates are tightly rehearsed so they can't stray from scripted responses. The rules are such that a third-party candidate has little chance to participate.

That's not the way it used to be and that's not the way its supposed to me. But that's the way it is because the party leaders call the shots. The result is a debate system so boring that Americans tune out. Debate viewership has dropped from 60% of households in 1980 to 30% in 2000.

This year, some politically active groups and individuals are challenging the debate system with one of their own. The Citizens' Debate Commission argues that the current debate system is a ''Beltway sham,'' and says it will sponsor a series of fall debates. The group includes such widely diverse participants as former independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson, former Republican contenders Alan Keyes and Pat Buchanan and former Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

Where the current debate structure requires third-party candidates to have an improbably high 15% in national polls in order to participate, the Citizens' Debate Commission would lower the threshold to 5%. The commission calls for a looser structure that would allow rebuttals, follow-up questions and questions among candidates.

Don't expect the Democratic and Republican operatives to be thrilled, and don't expect their nominees to participate. The parties like the boring debate system they have created. After all, anything that wrings life out of the presidential campaign makes their scripted commercials all the more important.

But the two major parties and their candidates should know that the Citizens'

Debate Commission is right. No matter how the two nominees perform during the debates, the real losers under the current system are the voters. And democracy.