Format of Biden-Palin Debate Sets No Limit on Subject Matter

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

Negotiators for the campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama agreed yesterday on a format for the Oct. 2 debate between Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., resolving an issue left open in August after the campaigns settled on the structure of the three presidential debates, according to sources involved in the talks.

Under the plan agreed to yesterday, Palin and Biden will have less time than McCain and Obama to reply to moderators' questions and discuss each other's answers. And there will be no guidelines given to Gwen Ifill of PBS, moderator of the vice presidential debate, as to subject matter, allowing her to mix in questions about foreign and domestic matters, the sources said.

Both sides were satisfied with the final agreement, the sources said. The Commission on Presidential Debates, the independent nonprofit organization that manages these quadrennial events, had hoped the campaigns would agree to the same longer segments for the vice presidential aspirants as those adopted in August for the presidential debates.

In the negotiations, Republicans wanted to limit the amount of time available for their neophyte candidate, Palin, to be questioned on a single topic. Democrats, meanwhile, wanted to be sure Biden and Palin spoke from lecterns rather than sitting at a table the way Vice President Cheney and his rivals in 2000 (Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut) and 2004 (Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina) did. Both sides got what they wanted. Palin and Biden will each have 90 seconds to respond to questions, followed by a two-minute period for discussion between the candidates.

There will be three presidential debates and one vice presidential encounter. The first presidential debate, on Friday, will be devoted to foreign policy and national security. Jim Lehrer of PBS will moderate. The second debate, scheduled for Oct. 7, will use a town meeting format with voters in the room and no limitations on subject matter. Tom Brokaw of NBC will moderate. The third, on Oct. 15, will be devoted to domestic policy and economic issues. Bob Schieffer of CBS will be the moderator.

The format for the first and third presidential debates is different than in the past. It will allow for nine separate nine-minute segments, each devoted to a question introduced by the moderator. The candidates will take turns replying to these questions, getting two minutes each. That will be followed by five minutes for further discussion. The moderator is supposed to ensure that each candidate uses a roughly equal amount of time, but this year there are no lights or buzzers to help enforce time limits.

The candidates will be permitted to question each other directly during those five-minute discussion periods, but they may not do so very often, because the campaigns are anxious about letting their candidates appear too aggressive, said sources involved in their preparations.

"We're charting some new territory here," Lehrer said in an interview. "It has the possibility of getting more give and take and more real reactions" from both candidates.

The same possibility will exist in the format agreed to yesterday for the Biden-Palin debate, but there will be less time available for such back and forth on each question. Ifill said Friday that she was satisfied with the five-minute segments.

The Democrats' desire to put the vice presidential candidates behind podiums grew out of the 2000 and 2004 vice presidential debates, when the candidates sat close to each other behind the same table. Cheney had the upper hand in both debates, said several Democrats involved in the debate process, in part because the setting made it difficult -- if not impossible -- for Lieberman and Edwards to go after Cheney aggressively. Whether that was because of the setting or because the two Democrats wanted to avoid confrontation is a matter still disputed by participants.

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