Presidential Debate Plans Set

Negotiators for President Bush and Democrat John Kerry agreed Monday to three 90-minute debates beginning Sept. 30, including one town-hall format with questions from undecided voters.

The two campaigns essentially went along with recommendations from the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (search) -- except for the proposed subject matter of the first and third debates.

The topic of the first meeting will be foreign policy and homeland security, rather than the economy as the commission had suggested. The final debate, which was to be on foreign policy, will now be about the economy.

Details of the agreement were announced by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III (search), the chief negotiator for Bush, and attorney Vernon Jordan for Kerry.

The first debate will be Sept. 30 at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The second, a town-hall style format, will be Oct. 8 at Washington University in St. Louis, and the third will beheld Oct. 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe.

One vice presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney (search) and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards (search) takes place Oct. 5 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Bush and Kerry "are pleased with today's announcement and look forward to the debates," Baker and Jordan said in a joint statement. Details were outlined in an accompanying 32-page document.

Kerry will spend several days in Wisconsin next week in preparation for the debates, said George Twigg, a Kerry spokesman in Wisconsin. Details of the visit were not immediately released.

"He's enjoyed his time in Wisconsin," Twigg said. The state is also one Kerry can't afford to lose. Democrat Al Gore narrowly won Wisconsin in 2000, and recent polls show Bush slightly ahead there.

Kerry's campaign agreed to the commission's proposal for venues, dates and moderators in July, about a month after the commission released its schedule. Bush's campaign at first sought only to limit the scope to two presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, according to those familiar with the negotiations.

The campaigns also agreed to the commission's choice of moderators: Jim Lehrer of PBS for the first, Charles Gibson of ABC for the second, Bob Schieffer of CBS for the third, and Gwen Ifill of PBS for the vice presidential debate.

The commission only invited the two major-party candidates. In the agreement, Bush and Kerry said that should circumstances change, and a third-party candidate be added, the candidate would have to abide by terms of their agreement. As of now, no minor-party candidate, including Ralph Nader, meets the commission's criteria for inclusion.

Bush and Kerry both agreed not to engage in any other debates, or debate-like events, sponsored by other organizations.

The agreement also requires them to remain behind their respective podiums and not walk around during the first and third debates. For the town-hall debate, members of the audience who want to ask questions must submit them in advance to the moderator for screening.

The two campaigns debated over the format of the town-hall style session.

The final agreement calls for a live audience of between 100 and 150 people who describe themselves as likely voters and are either "soft" Bush supporters or "soft" Kerry supporters -- with an equal number from each group. Audience members will be selected by the Gallup organization.

With a guaranteed television audience of tens of millions of people, the debates could be pivotal given the closeness of the race. National polls are mixed, with some showing a dead heat and others showing a modest lead for Bush.

In a poll by the Pew Research Center, 29 percent said the debates would help them decide how to vote. Some 68 percent said their minds were already made up.

Those undecided voters could make a huge difference. According to a Nielsen survey, 46.6 million people watched the first debate between Bush and Democrat Al Gore in 2000. The second and third debates drew audiences of 37.6 million, and 37.7 million, respectively.

In 2000, Bush and Gore debated three times in 90-minute sessions in October. The running mates debated once that month.