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Knoxville News Sentinel

Scripps Howard News Service

Jessica Wehrman
Wednesday, September 29, 2004

No props, notes, charts or diagrams. No opening statements. No referencing an audience member during a debate. And no direct candidate-to-candidate questioning.

When President Bush and Sen. John Kerry begin the first of three presidential debates Thursday night, they will follow rules set out in a 30-page document signed by both campaigns that hashes out details ranging from audience members to podium height.

Critics say the rules make the event less of a debate than a 90-minute long spin session that falls woefully short of interaction between the two candidates.

"College debate teams wouldn't consider presidential debates to be real," said Chris Shaw, organizing director of Open Debates, a nonpartisan group that aims to reform the debates. "Real debates have back and forth dialogue."

Open Debates has criticized the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates as a tool of the campaigns and wishes to return to the pre-1988 era when the nonpartisan League of Women Voters organized the debates. They complain that the commission illegally works on both candidates' behalf and shields them from the true public accountability a debate would provide.

One of Open Debates' biggest complaints is that debate rules bar candidates from asking each other questions or communicating directly with each other.

"They do everything they can to squeeze out the spontaneity and the possibility of making a mistake," Shaw said.

Hans Riemer, political director of Rock the Vote, which works to register young voters, said debates are on the fast track to becoming as scripted and empty as political conventions. "They're television ads for the campaigns," he said. "And if this continues, the public is going to stop tuning in."

He said the debates lack adequate input from the public, and he dislikes rules barring candidates from directly questioning one another.

"What are they afraid of?" he asks. "It's just pathetic. Two guys who want to be president who are afraid to talk to one another ... I want a sense that anything can happen, and it's just not the direction we're going."

The League of Women Voters organized the 1976, 1980 and 1984 debates. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter refused to participate in a debate including both Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson. The League held the debate without Carter.

But when the League organized the 1988 debates, both Republicans and Democrats balked, saying they wanted more control. They drafted a "memorandum of understanding" that laid out a variety of rules on issues including follow-up questions and audience makeup.

When they presented it to the League as a demand, the League withdrew its sponsorship and said that the debates were "controlled and scripted" by campaign organizations. Since then, the Commission on Presidential Debates has organized presidential debates.

Anderson, now a law professor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., remembers the 1980 debate, which was organized by the League of Women Voters, as being comparatively low-key. Candidates agreed on the length of the responses and on the site, but on little else.

He and Reagan discussed their views on women's rights, civil rights, budget policy, tax policy and energy policy, and could interact with one another. "It was a fairly lively and useful part of the campaign," he said. Today, he calls for a public "citizens' debate commission" to weigh in and eliminate the "tedious" negotiations before debates.

"This is such a highly stilted and scripted effort to simply play to the vanities of the candidates," he said. "It's a protective mechanism that throws a shield around the candidates."