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2004 Debates Format

The format for the debates, as announced on June 17, 2004, is as follows:

• Each debate shall have a single moderator and last for 90 minutes.

• The memorandum of understanding signed by the two campaigns on September 20 states: For the September 30 and October 14 debates, the candidates will appear at podiums.

          Commission on Presidential Debates (search) rules announced on June 17, 2004 had stated: In the first and third presidential debates and the vice presidential debate the candidates shall be seated with the moderator at a table.

          The nominees will focus on foreign policy during the opening session, on Sept. 30 in Florida; they will take questions from undecided voters at the town-meeting-style debate Oct. 8 in Missouri; and they will conclude with a session on Oct. 13 in Arizona that will revolve around domestic issues.

          The two sides decided to reverse the commission's recommendation that the debates focus first on domestic policy and later on foreign policy, which the president's campaign sees as his strength.

• The vice presidential debate shall cover both foreign and domestic policy topics.

• There shall be no opening statements; there shall be two-minute closing statements.

• The order of questioning and closing statements shall be determined by coin toss.

• The moderator's job in the first and third presidential debates and the vice presidential debate will be to introduce and change topics, to ensure that the participants have equal time, and to encourage some direct exchange among the candidates. The moderators will select all topics and questions.

• In the second presidential debate, the town meeting participants will pose their questions to the candidates. The town meeting participants will review their questions with the moderator before the debate for the sole purpose of avoiding duplicate questions. The participants in the town meeting, to be chosen by the Gallup Organization (search), will be undecided voters from the St. Louis, Mo., standard metropolitan statistical area.

• The moderators will have discretion to ask follow-up questions in all debates.

• Each debate shall take place before a live audience.

Debate Format History

• The 1960 and 1976-1988 presidential debates exclusively used the panel of reporters.

• More recently the single moderator and town hall formats have come into favor.

• The town hall format was first used in the Richmond, Va. debate in 1992. Having an audience of undecided voters pose the questions likely results in a broader range of questions, but on the downside this format does not foster follow-up. 

• One format, which has not been attempted, is to have the candidates question each other directly.