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The Daily Times

Timothy Logue
Tuesday, May 25, 2004

A commission comprising high-profile civic leaders and former presidential candidates has invited George W. Bush and John Kerry to a debate on the Swarthmore College campus five weeks before Election Day.

"Swarthmore has a history of open debate and today, for the first time, we are calling on the candidates to participate in a new format," said Chris Shaw, organizing director of Open Debates, a Washington D.C. non-profit committed to reforming the presidential debate process.

Open Debates is trying to establish an alternative to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored every presidential debate since taking over from the League of Women Voters in 1987.

To achieve that end, Open Debates created the Citizens' Debate Commission, a group of 17 prominent Americans who represent all sides of the political spectrum. Two commission members, John B. Anderson and Alan Keyes, have previously run for president.

"They reached out to us and we thought it would be a good thing to encourage open and honest debate," said Maurice Eldridge, vice president for college and community relations at Swarthmore. "As an educational institution, why would we say no?"

Eldridge hopes the debate, set for Sept. 28 and one of six scheduled by the new commission, comes to pass.

But while Swarthmore is willing to play host, the Bush and Kerry campaigns have yet to show a willingness to deviate from the traditional format -- one detractors claim is controlled and choreographed by national leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties.

"We are looking at this as a long-term project to improve our democracy and improve the dialogue between the candidates," Shaw said. "Under the current format, the American people receive a series of rehearsed sound bytes and stump speeches."

Open Debate claims that party leaders control everything from the venue to the moderator to the height of the podium.

"It would be like putting a person with no weapons into a ring with 500 lions," Springfield Republican chairman Charlie Sexton said of a Bush appearance at Swarthmore. "But this president has a lot of courage and I don't think he would be afraid to debate Kerry anywhere."

Messages left with the Bush and Kerry press offices were not immediately returned Monday.

Other proposed debate venues are Capital University in Columbus, Ohio; Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.; Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.; and Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. A vice-presidential debate is scheduled for Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

Some changes the Citizens' Debate Commission would like to see are: the injection of legitimate third-party candidates, the lengthening of response times, candidate-to-candidate questioning, and the use of unscreened questions.

The commission would like to see: a pair of single-moderator debates, a town hall debate, a youth debate and apanel debate with questions from academic, civic, artistic, religious, media, labor and business leaders.

"It sounds like they want free-flow debates which handlers don't particularly like," said Philadelphia-based political consultant Larry Ceisler. "It's hard enough to get the incumbent or the frontrunner to debate without changing the rules."

Would the president consider coming to Swarthmore, a historically left-leaning campus, so close to the election?

"It's not the specific location that matters but the market where it occurs," Ceisler said. "The Philadelphia suburbs are very important to President Bush's reelection. You can't carry Pennsylvania and lose the suburbs.

That said, Ceisler added, "I just don't see it happening. Debates are not the preferred mode of communication in presidential politics."

The Citizens' Debate Commission would allow candidates to participate if they were on enough state ballots to win an electoral college majority and register at 5 percent in national polls. They would also be included if they registered a majority in national polls asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included in the presidential debates.

Under the current system, a candidate must register at 15 percent in the polls.

"I've never understood the need to change from the Kennedy-Nixon format," said Delaware County Democratic Party chairman Cliff Wilson. "They were the kind of debates you had in high school and college with openings, questions, responses and time for a rebuttal, re-rebuttal and a closing.

"Everything changed when people started to think about how to have debates to help their candidates."

While Swarthmore College may not be Bush country, the alma mater of former Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis would welcome the president and the chance to further educate voters.

"We've had plenty of conservative speakers here. And we have a good number of conservative students," said college spokesman Tom Krattenmaker. "More than any ideology, this campus is about the full and open discussion of ideas and issues. To the extent that this proposed new approach is more like a real debate, we think that would be a good thing and consistent with Swarthmore's ideals."

Thomas Judge Sr., chairman of the Delaware County Republican Party said fairness is all that matters in the debating game.

"Any debate is worthwhile if it's on a level playing field. If they would agree to do it here, I'd do anything I could to see that things went smoothly."