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The San Antonio Express-News

Carlos Guerra
Thursday, September 30, 2004

Pollsters, you may recall, kicked off this presidential season campaign with smug predictions that very few undecided voters in a handful of battleground states would pick the winner. But since then, their polls have vacillated erratically and, more than once, produced wildly disparate results.  

The vacillation was still evident Wednesday, when's tally of state polls showed President Bush leading Sen. John Kerry 273-241. But excluding states with differences within the margins of error, the count dropped to 221-171 - well short of the 270 electoral votes needed - and similar to Rasmussen Report's latest tally of 213-196.  

It's little wonder that the pundits will be glued to their TVs tonight as the campaign's so-called debate phase kicks off.  

But you won't see a debate, says George Farah, founding director of Open Debates, a nonpartisan group with conservative, centrist and liberal backers that is trying to wrest control of the presidential debates from the two parties and give it back to some truly nonpartisan, unaligned sponsor.  

"What you'll get is a parallel presentation of sound bites that will occur on the same stage at the same time," he says, with the candidates parroting well-rehearsed lines that may not even be responsive, and they'll get away with it.  

After the historic Kennedy-Nixon match-up in 1960, the next debates were in 1976 and were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. And the League kept sponsoring them through 1984, each time having to fend off stronger efforts by the parties to take them over.  

Then, before the 1988 elections, the two parties signed a memorandum of understanding that created the Commission on Presidential Debates to take over the debates, keep third-party and independent hopefuls out, tame the formats, pick the questioners, limit the issues and turn them into pabulum.  

As the memoranda have grown in length and specificity, TV audiences have shrunk - by more than 26 million viewers between 1992 and 2000.  

"We would like an independent debate sponsor that is more concerned with voter education than in allowing the candidates to manipulate these important civic events," Farah says. "Our democracy needs frank and open dialogue and that's not what we're getting.  

"The campaigns are more managed and scripted, and more and more about staying on message and repeating sound bites," he says, and very important issues are simply going unmentioned.  

"It's unlikely that immigration will be discussed, or homelessness, or the fact that there are frank differences about free trade in this country," Farah says. "And issues such as corporate crime waves aren't likely to be talked about, and neither will the problems with our presidential campaigns."  

What would his group like?  

"There should be a back-and-forth dialogue between the candidates, where they ask each other questions, and response times are too short," he continues. "You can't talk about an issue thoroughly in 90 seconds, and there needs to be follow-ups. And if (a candidate) veers off into another subject, they need to be called on that, and there needs to be rebuttals."  

And one more thing needed, he says, is: "There should be more debates. This is the most important job in the world and we're getting, what, 4 1/2 hours?"  

I'll wait for tonight's "battle," but clearly, giving the two parties control doesn't make much sense.