The first debate, on Oct. 3, will be more traditional with the candidates standing at podiums questioned by a single moderator. Presidential candidates will have two minutes each to respond to questions followed by one minute to rebut. Use of a single moderator debuted nationally during the third 1992 debate among George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
According to analysts, this style is supposed to focus more attention on the candidates than the journalists. It puts greater pressure on the moderator to catch misinformation and to have a depth of knowledge on a range of issues, said Vermont television journalist and moderator of state debates Christopher Graff. He also contends the single moderator style allows for freer exchanges between the candidates.
The second presidential debate employs a new, more informal format. The candidates will sit together at one table. The moderator may extend the two-minute response time at his discretion. This style was used during the 2000 Republican primary debate in South Carolina, but has never been used in presidential debates.
This year's third presidential debate will be town hall style. First used in 1992, these town hall style meetings have attracted record audiences. The format allows selected, undecided voters to pose their own questions to the candidates. Howard Reiter, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, said town hall debates get beyond the insider-politics questions that journalists tend to ask.
President Clinton, who popularized the format in his '92 campaign, said the town hall style kept him accountable to the people and allowed them to ask questions in their own voice.
"I think it's very interesting the questions they ask and the way they asked them, and that's no disrespect to you, but if you're in journalism and you work in politics there's a different way you form the questions maybe and some different questions you would ask," Clinton said in a recent interview. "Those folks are out there trying to put lives together and, you know, pay bills, and send their kids to college, and deal with all the things that people deal with. And that's their perspective."
One of the typical formats that will not be used is questioning by a panel of journalists. The panel was first used in the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, and had been used at least once in every presidential debate up until 1996.
The panel format received mixed reviews from those candidates who participated in them. Looking back, President Gerald Ford likened this style to a press conference and said it distracts from the essential confrontation between the candidates. President Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, defended panel-style debates, saying it allows healthy exchange among candidates in response to substantive questions.
Reflecting on her experience generally, vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro said she found the debates too rehearsed. Because of the intense preparation, the debates simply tested the candidates' ability to repeat answers, not their ability to think, she said. Ferraro's 1984 opponent, then-Vice President George Bush, agrees.
"Some of it's contrived. Show business," Bush said. "There's a certain artificiality to it, [a] lack of spontaneity to it."
There is one definite positive for the competing candidate, according to 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole: A chance to get out one's vision for American, and to do it at a great price.
"It's free. And in this days of when we ought to have a little campaign reform, this is one opportunity where you can have the same advantage as the president of the United States," Senator Dole said. "Here I was standing there out of office, not the majority leader, a candidate for president of the United States, and I didn't have to pay for it."
Regardless of their format, debates are seen as an essential part of the process of selecting a president. Winners, losers and pundits all agree on that. On the road to Election Day, the debates give the candidate a crucial window of opportunity to reach the public.
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