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The Providence Journal

Michael Corkery
Thursday, September 30, 2004

The debates are being sponsored by an independent commission but the Bush and Kerry campaigns worked out the ground rules.

The Debate Watch at Rhode Island College tonight is described as a chance for voters to play a role in critiquing the first showdown between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

Organizers will collect the crowd's reactions and forward them to the commission that sponsors the debates. They say that the input could help shape the format of future debates.

Many of those who study debates and even those who oversee them say that the voters' interests are largely being ignored.

The major parties, they say, have made sure the debates, like the rest of the campaign, are tightly scripted.

"The fact of the matter is that the candidates, in these instances, are more likely to do what they believe is in their own best interest, not in the voters' best interest," said Paul G. Kirk Jr., co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The commission is sponsoring the debates and the "Debate Watches" in Rhode Island and in 43 other states.

But, unlike other years, the commission did not take part in negotiating the format of the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, Kirk said.

Kirk said officials from the Bush and Kerry campaigns met privately to set the terms.

"They took it upon themselves to work out an agreement between them," Kirk said.

The campaigns, he said, rebuffed the commission's proposal that candidates ask each other direct questions -- something critics say would make the debates more freewheeling.

The format, as devised by the campaigns, leaves little room for spontaneity.

Response times to questions will be tightly controlled. In the second debate, on Oct. 8, the audience can ask questions but not follow-ups. Also, the height of the podiums must appear identical to the audience and the candidates' dressing rooms must be of comparable size.

"They are avoiding error at all costs, avoiding exposure at all costs," said Tom Gerety, the former president of Amherst College, who now directs the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

"It's not in our interest as the most mature democracy in the world to make a spectacle of ourself with chicken-hearted debating."

Gerety is a member of the newly formed Citizens' Debate Commission, which says the current process gives the major parties too much control. Members want to replace the Commission on Presidential Debates with a less partisan panel.

Kirk is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The commission's co-chairman is Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a former Republican National Committee chairman who now lobbies for the gambling industry.

The Commission on Presidential Debates took over the debates after the League of Women Voters ended its sponsorship in 1988. That year, the League was angry about the terms that George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis had privately devised for their debates, Gerety wrote recently in the Orlando Sentinel.

Critics say the commission has failed to assert itself into the process because it's largely a tool of the major parties.

"The commission pretends that they have some role in the process but they don't really," said Hans Reimer, the Washington director of Rock the Vote, which encourages young people to vote.

"Some other kind of system is needed. Why don't we just put the two men face to face and let them go at each other? It might be more enlightening."

Reimer said the current system reinforces a cynicism among young people about elections.

Rock the Vote's executive director, Jehmnu Greene, is a member of the Citizens' Debate Commission, which also includes the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and the CEO of Common Cause.

"What's happened to debates is what has happened to the conventions -- they are scripted theater," said Reimer.

Kirk said he understands some of the criticism, but believes the Commission on Presidential Debates has little power to make demands of the candidates.

The terms of the debates were hashed out in a "memorandum of understanding" signed by the Bush and Kerry campaign managers.

Kirk said the commission refused to sign the document. But the commission is still sponsoring the debates.

"While we said we are not happy with the ground rules or process they agreed on, we had to accede," Kirk said. "We won't do it in writing."

Jim Lehrer, the longtime PBS anchor, will moderate tonight's debate.

For the town hall style format in the second debate, the campaigns have agreed that the audience will include an equal number of what they call "soft Bush" supporters and "soft Kerry" supporters -- meaning voters who are partial to, but not passionate about either candidate.

In the past, the commission selected audience members from a pool of undecided voters, Kirk said.

"I can't figure it out," said Kirk. But, he added, "at the end of the day you are going to have real American citizens asking questions of the candidates. If that is what we get, that is fine."