Published September 30, 2004
SPRING GREEN, Wis. – There is a lot of fine print in the document spelling out rules for the debates between President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry (search).
When the first of the three debates starts Thursday, the candidates will wait for a cue from the moderator and then "proceed to center stage, shake hands and proceed directly to their positions behind their podiums."
Those lecterns must be set 10 feet apart and equally canted toward center stage, measuring 50 inches tall from the audience's view and 48 inches tall to the writing surface on the candidates' side. No risers, chairs or stools permitted.
Each side hopes the rules give them a slight advantage and their opponent a disadvantage.
For example, could the wide distance between podiums obscure the 5-inch height difference between the 6-foot-4 Democrat and the 5-foot-11 Republican?
The Bush campaign's communications director, Nicolle Devenish, said the president's team negotiated for rules that would make it clear if Kerry was breaking the rules, like time limits imposed on the candidates' answers reinforced with timing lights visible to the debate audience and television viewers.
The aim was "to create an even playing field for the president who has far less experience debating, than his opponent who is essentially a career debater," she said. "The other objective was to curtail grandstanding and filibustering, something many great debaters rely upon."
That comment has something to do with another pre-debate tactic - lowering expectations for your candidate so his performance will seem better. In fact, a survey found a majority of people expect Bush to win the debates.
Kerry officials said they fretted little about details but insisted the candidates hold a town hall-style forum. They think Kerry will hold the advantage when the two candidates take questions from undecided voters at the second debate on Oct. 8.
"I think what's most significant about the debates is, for the first time in four years, George Bush is going to have to answer questions about his record," said Kerry spokesman David Wade. "For the first time, he'll have to get by with more than a wink, a smile and a swagger."
Personal tics have dogged candidates in debates past, like the heavy sighs emitted by Al Gore while listening to George W. Bush in 2000 or the first President Bush's glance at his watch in 1992.
Viewers watching at home may not see such breaches in etiquette this year because, according to an agreement between the two campaigns, the cameras must stay fixed on the candidate answering the question posed by the moderator. A Democratic official said it's a detail added by Bush's negotiators.
A Republican who was privy to the debate negotiations said the Bush camp's aim had been to take away some of Kerry's strengths, such as the former prosecutor's ability to move about.
But the television networks plan to ignore the rule about camera shots.
"We're providing all the networks' coverage and we're not going to follow directions from outside sources," said Paul Schur, a spokesman for FOX News Channel. The network is operating the cameras at Thursday's debate and is expected to provide feeds from several different cameras, giving each network discretion on which shots to air.
Separately, the memorandum of agreement between the campaigns doesn't stipulate how hot or cold it must be but asks the hosts to maintain "an appropriate temperature according to industry standards."