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San Francisco Chronicle
Associated Press

Frazier Moore
Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Here's an idea: Turn this week's presidential debate into an edition of "Jeopardy!"

With Alex Trebek moderating, let the candidates go at it fielding questions under such categories as "Homeland Security," "Creating New Jobs" and "No Kidding, What DID You Do in the War?"

At the end of the show, the big money-winner -- whether it's President Bush, John Kerry or current "Jeopardy!" champion Ken Jennings -- gets the keys to the White House for the next four years.

Advantages: This would get huge ratings and wrap the campaign a month early and, even better, Floridians wouldn't have to worry about counting any votes.

Of course, there's one hitch: Jennings, at 30, is too young to run for president.

Besides, during Thursday's debate (at 9 p.m. EDT) and the two after that (Oct. 8 and 13), viewers might prefer some actual debating over a rote showcase of Q & A.

Accustomed as they are to watching full-contact discourse -- whether on "Hardball," "The O'Reilly Factor" or "The Jerry Springer Show" -- viewers might like to see Bush and Kerry face off man-to-man with the accusations and insults they've been voicing behind each other's back on the campaign trail for months.

But it seems the rougher talk-TV gets, the prissier the presidential debates become: more a duel of body language than the English language. And that's just the way the candidates want it: precisely formatted, with as many safeguards against uncertainty as possible. Priority One isn't clobbering the other guy. It's to keep from tripping up yourself.

While this risk-averse strategy may serve the interests of the candidates, just how well it serves the electorate is, well, debatable.

But that doesn't stop the media from giving each presidential debate the sort of buildup typically deployed for world-class tournaments like the Super Bowl or Oscars.

Like those, each debate is hyped as if it, too, were a contest in itself, even when defeat is judged on the basis of a sigh (Al Gore's, in 2000) or a glance at a wristwatch (George H.W. Bush's, in 1992). "The stakes could hardly be higher," harp the media, so why wait until November to declare some kind of winner?

Defenders of "The Debate Show '04" argue that, whatever its shortcomings, it brings the candidates together for convenient comparison.

But what sort of comparisons can voters make when the debates have been packaged into "glorified bipartisan news conferences"?

That's the description favored by George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, a nonpartisan group dedicated to reforming the presidential debate process.

It's a process, complains Farah, dictated by the nominees themselves, who submit their finicky terms to the Commission on Presidential Debates (a private organization formed in 1987 by the Republican and Democratic parties) which in turn "obediently implements every element of the contract," he says.

"Viewers tune in because they want a break from the 30-second scripted campaign spots, but the candidates are scared of making a mistake in front of tens of millions of people. So the debates we end up with are totally predictable, exclude all third-party voices, and limit response time for each candidate," says Farah.

Not only does this nothing-left-to-chance setup cheat viewers who want the candidates to reveal themselves in truly meaningful ways. It can also backfire on the overcautious candidates.

"When you eliminate substantive discussion, you end up with a total focus on image and emotion. All viewers are going to be looking for is some sort of slip-up -- and that's what they will remember on voting day.

"Candidates are actually prohibited from talking to each other," Farah marvels. "What kind of debate is that?!"

Indeed, this year's "Memorandum of Understanding," hammered out by the Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards campaigns, specifies the two candidates "may not ask each other direct questions" or "address each other with proposed pledges."

The 32-page, more-detailed-than-ever document also spells out the dimensions of the candidates' lecterns and their distance on the stage from each other. It bans the use of "props, notes, charts, diagrams" by the nominees, while allowing them to have paper and pens "to take notes during the debate" -- provided such items are submitted for prior approval by the commission.

And the memo mandates a set of timed-sequence warning lights for each candidate that will be "visible to the debate audiences and television viewers" -- come to think of it, like those lights that tick down the seconds on the lectern of each "Jeopardy!" contestant.