CDC Logo

More Presidential Debates Sought

A renegade group is challenging the credibility of the official sponsor of presidential debates and suggesting other forums.

Miami Herald
Beth Reinhard
Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Florida has never hosted a presidential debate before. If the Citizens' Debate Commission has its way, the state would present two nationally televised forums this year.

The group issued invitations Monday to Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry to face off Oct. 15 at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, and at five other campuses across the country.

The official debate sponsor, the Commission on Presidential Debates, has already chosen the University of Miami as one of its three sites this year.

NSU would welcome the same opportunity, should the candidates agree to come.

''We'd be glad to do it,'' said NSU spokeswoman Lindsay Ellenbogen. ``A debate held on this campus would further understanding of national issues, and that's the goal of our program overall.''

The proposal to include NSU in the lineup is part of a public-relations campaign to discredit the official debate sponsor. The Commission on Presidential Debates is controlled by the major political parties and offers scripted events that offer little insight into candidates, according to the alternative debate group.

Every detail, from the selection of the moderator to the height of the podium, is secretly negotiated.

''They shield the candidates from public accountability,'' said George Farah, a founder of the Citizens' Debate Commission, a Washington group sanctioned by 17 national leaders, including former independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson and former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes.


The alternative group wants to lower the threshold for a candidate to participate in the debates from 15 to five percent in national polls. There would be more opportunities for follow-up questions and rebuttals, and candidates would be able to address each other.

Ever since Richard Nixon's five o'clock shadow made him look sinister next to the youthful John F. Kennedy in 1960, presidential debates have been billed as high-stakes moments. A zinger gives a candidate a much-needed boost in the polls; a blunder becomes fodder for late-night comics.

''Currently, the candidates manipulate the debate format to eliminate all spontaneity and allow only memorable sound bites,'' Farah said. ``We want to take back the debates for the American people.''

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized the forums since 1988, insists it is independent and nonpartisan. The criteria for participants help the public focus on viable candidates. Time limits on responses are essential to keep the debate moving, the commission says.


''This commission is in business for one principle: To put on debates that help the American public,'' said the commission's executive director, Janet Brown.

Brown acknowledged that debates can only go on if the candidates agree to the format. The rules for the 2004 debates have not been set.

The Kerry campaign did not take sides in the debate over the debates, but said the Massachusetts senator wants to share a stage with the president as much as possible.

''John Kerry looks forward to debating George Bush early and often,'' said Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau in a written statement. ``In fact, he has already challenged Bush to six monthly debates in six different states, including Florida.''

Said Bush campaign spokesman Reed Dickens: ``We only know one thing and that is that the President will debate Sen. Kerry at the appropriate time and place. And we look forward to it.''