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It'll Be Civilized Warfare

New York Post

Gersh Kuntzman and Stefan Friedman

Sunday, September 26, 2004

They can't talk to each other. They can't leave their podiums. They can't speak for more than two minutes. And they certainly can't use props.

And you thought presidential debates were spontaneous.

The agreement hammered out between the Bush and Kerry campaigns for the first of three debates this Thursday leaves little room for the candidates to do anything but answer questions. Answers are two minutes; rebuttals, 90 seconds. "They draw up such detailed rules because they don't want anything unscripted to happen," said Chris Shaw, organizing director of Open Debates, a group that says current presidential debates are little more than "bipartisan news conferences."

Here is a summary of some of the more arcane guidelines to which both campaigns agreed:

* The candidates can't address each other. A rule like that eliminates almost any newsworthy confrontations, as in the 1980 debate when President Jimmy Carter complained that his challenger, Ronald Reagan, would gut Medicaid. Reagan's rejoinder "There you go again" would break this year's rules.

* "The candidates shall not address each other with proposed pledges."

In 2000, Senate candidate Rick Lazio abandoned his podium, walked over to opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton and stood there awkwardly as she refused to sign a pledge banning soft money.

* "When a candidate is speaking, TV coverage will be limited to the candidate speaking. There will be no TV cutaways to any candidate who is not responding to a question."

Call this the Curse of George H.W. Bush. In a 1992 debate, the then-president was caught looking at his watch implying he was bored.

* "All members of the debate audience will be instructed . . . not to applaud."