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Albuquerque Journal
Wednesday, September 29, 2004

One could reasonably argue that the ability to "think on one's feet" is a presidential asset. One of the surest means for determining how well a presidential candidate thinks on his feet can be found in the debate arena.

George W. Bush and John Kerry will face each other in three televised events before Election Day -- the first of which will be aired Thursday night.

Voters should tune in. Valuable insight into candidate positions may well be revealed. But here's a caveat: These are not debates.

Webster's defines debate as a "discussion or consideration of opposing reasons; (an) argument about or deliberation on a question."

In contrast, the Bush/Kerry face-offs are carefully scripted, every detail spelled out in a 32-page legal contract that prohibits questioning or discussion of a candidate's stated position.

The Commission on Presidential Debates -- created 16 years ago by the Republican and Democratic parties and funded by tax-deductible corporate contributions -- will ensure optimum candidate comfort by making all aspects of the events predictable, including the questions.

As a result, these are not so much debates as "glorified bipartisan news conferences," in the words of the Citizens' Debate Commission, a group that has sprung up in response to the CPD.

America needs presidential debates that truly help voters cast an informed vote Nov. 2. The Citizen's Debate Commission has four excellent suggestions for debate formats: single moderator debates, with attention focused on candidate answers; authentic town hall debates that do not allow advance question screening; a youth debate that would raise atypical questions and spark voter interest among younger Americans; and a debate in which candidates would be questioned by a panel of educated media, academic, civic, artistic, religious, labor and business leaders.

These are the kinds of debates Americans need, want and deserve. For now, however, voters are stuck with the two parties' scripted format. Tune in anyway. The candidates will impart their positions and -- who knows? -- an accidental, unscripted spark just might surface.