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The Macon Telegraph

Don Schanche Jr.
Thursday, September 30, 2004

Here's what not to look for in tonight's presidential debate:

Any direct question by one candidate to another. Not allowed.

Any answer longer than two minutes or response longer than a minute and a half. Not allowed.

A TV "cutaway" shot to either candidate while the other is speaking. Not allowed.

Who doesn't allow these things?

The candidates themselves.

These and a host of other rules covering everything from the podium height to the candidates' dressing rooms are spelled out in a dense, detailed, 32-page agreement between the Bush and Kerry campaigns that will govern tonight's tightly controlled event. The debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, signed it as well.

It leads some observers to question whether to call it a debate at all.

"I think that what takes place are really joint press conferences rather than a debate," said Ed Panetta, an associate professor of speech communication and debate coach at the University of Georgia.

He said giving the candidates equal time should be only the first step. There should also be adequate time to discuss complex questions of national policy.

"If the topic is Libya, you really can't do justice to Libya in two minutes," Panetta said. "You can't do justice to AIDS in Africa in two minutes. It's not adequate time. Additionally in a debate, there's a notion of direct refutation. That element is really missing in a presidential debate."

Nevertheless, he said, the debate should not be without value to voters.

"I think any time the citizens get to see the candidate juxtaposed to one another it's a good thing," he said.

But presidential debates could be more open, lively and informative, a group called Open Debates said. The nonpartisan organization has been pushing this year for more openness in the presidential debate process.

"It's been very secret," said Chris Shaw, organizing director for Open Debates.

"These debates are run by the contracts that the two campaigns agree on. In the past they've been kept secret from the public. This year we pushed to have it made public, and this year I think it's opened the process."

The "memorandum of understanding" between the two campaigns governing this year's debates was made public last week. Shaw said that's the first time it's happened in 16 years.

Presidential debates used to be sponsored by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. But since 1988, they have been held by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which was itself created by the heads of the Democratic and Republican parties, Shaw said.

In the view of Open Debates, the commission is more "bipartisan" than "nonpartisan," keeping third-party candidates out of the process and permitting the two major candidates to control the debate conditions.

"It allows the candidates to dictate every detail of the debates. And of course the candidates' primary interest is not voter education," Shaw said.