Bush, Gore Camps Agree on Debate Moderator, Formats

By Bob Melvin | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Campaign aides for the Bush and Gore camps agreed Saturday to a series of three debates to be moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS with a more flexible, "free-flowing style" than prior presidential debates.

Both campaigns and officials from the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates referred to the new format approach "historic."

In a departure from the strict guidelines and time restrictions on questions of past debates, the moderator this year has more discretion in following up on questions and allowing the candidates to continue to debate a particular topic, according to wire service reports.

"It gives the moderator a more free-flowing style and more discretion to stay on one particular subject," Bush Campaign Chairman Don Evans told reporters. "There will be an opportunity for a very free-flowing, substantive, real and genuine discussion of the issues."

Gore campaign chairman William Daley said he also was pleased with the final lineup of formats and the expanded discretion for Lehrer to direct the flow of discussion on issues.

"They are interesting formats, and they give the American people the greatest opportunity... to see these candidates and to listen to them specifically speak on issues of great importance to the American people," Daley said.

Daley said he spoke with the vice president, who told him he was "extremely pleased" with the results of the negotiations.

Commission officials were enthusiastic about the final plan.

"This is a good day for the process and a good day for America," said Paul Kirk, co-chairman of the commission and a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee

Commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said having three different formats will allow voters to see the candidates in a variety of settings.

''We are not electing the best debater, and that is why seeing these candidates in different formats is particularly important,'' he said.

Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the final plan: "It is a new way to debate. For the first time, we are going to have a wide-open format."

The 90-minute debates are set to start at 9 pm EDT on October 3 at the University of Massachusetts-Boston with the traditional, two-lectern format; October 11 at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC in a talk show style format seated around a table with the moderator. That approach is unprecedented in a presidential debate. And the final presidential debate will be held October 17 at Washington University in St. Louis, where the candidates will hold a town hall debate similar to ones held in 1992 and 1996 elections.

The vice presidential candidates, Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Joe Lieberman, will debate October 5 at Centre College in Danville, KY. The running mates will also hold their debate in the talk show format with the moderator to be named next week.

The televised presidential debates, which have taken place in every election since 1976, began with the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960.

Prior to 1988, the debates were sponsored by the campaigns themselves or by groups such as the League of Women Voters. The bipartisan commission first sponsored debates in 1988.

Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, both registering single digits in national polls, most likely will not meet the commission's threshold of 15 percent in media polls for inclusion.

Buchanan lost a legal battle to enter the debates in a ruling released Friday. US District Court Judge Richard Roberts rejected Buchanan's claim against the Federal Election Commission for dismissing his complaint against the debate commission concerning the 15 percent threshold.

Lehrer was selected for a second consecutive elections as debate moderator and said throught a spokesman: "It's an honor to be asked. I am delighted to do it."