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Act to Change Tired Format

Fort  Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
Friday, May 7, 2004

On Sept. 30, President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts will surely get a warm welcome at the first 2004 presidential debate, which will be held at the University of Miami.

That welcome likely won't be extended to other presidential candidates who want to take part, not only in Miami, but also at debates in St. Louis on Oct. 8 and in Tempe, Ariz., on Oct. 13.

Meanwhile, voters who tune in could see a tired rehash of sound bites and campaign attacks because the debate format agreed on behind closed doors precludes a lively, challenging exchange of ideas.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has been the exclusive organizer of the forums since 1988. Exclusivity is certainly one trait of the commission. Mystery is another. The commission hasn't always met its stated objective "to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners."

Critics suggest the commission, a nonpartisan organization, actually gives the two major political parties free rein in deciding debate formats, moderators and even subjects. The decisions are made away from public view. And the criterion that debate participants have a level of support at 15 percent or higher would currently exclude all but Republican Bush and Democrat Kerry.

Only once has a third-party candidate taken part in the debates. In 1992, independent candidate H. Ross Perot joined President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, for three debates. The debate formats included a memorable town hall meeting in which audience members asked questions. The 1992 campaign engaged and energized voters in a way that hasn't been seen since.

Various public-interest groups seek to change and re-energize the debates. One is the newly formed Citizens' Debate Commission, whose members include former presidential candidates John Anderson and Alan Keyes. Their debate proposal includes one forum in which the candidates query each other and another in which young people ask the questions.

Such changes are needed, given the divided electorate and the continued disinterest of college students and young professionals in the political process. The Commission on Presidential Debates and the major parties must open up the decision-making process and expand the list of candidates who participate. The debates are a public forum for voters, not a private club.