No walking around the podium. No props, no prepared notes, no hidden risers. No TV "reaction" shots of family or audience members, and no back-of-the-head camera angles, either. And, yes, you can bring your own makeup people.
After weeks of private and reportedly heated negotiations, representatives of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry agreed earlier this week to three televised debates, with another for Vice President Cheney and Sen. John Edwards. The first presidential debate will take place next Thursday at the University of Miami.
And now, with the release of a 32-page "memorandum of understanding," we understand why it took so long. The document is crammed with sections and subsections spelling out almost every imaginable rule of engagement and detail about how the debates will look. Or will be prohibited from looking.
In its precision and seeming fussiness, in its attempt at control, it often reads like an agreement between a concert promoter and a particularly demanding pop diva.
The agreement, for example, spells out the exact dimensions of the lectern to be used (50 inches high on the side facing the audience, 48 inches on the side facing the candidates) in the first and third debates, and how far apart those lecterns will be (10 feet, as measured from "the left-right center" of one "to the left-right center of the other").
It specifies the type of stools (identical, of equal height, with backs and footrests) that Bush and Kerry will sit on for the second, town-hall-style debate, as well as the arrangement (in a horseshoe) and nature of the audience. It specifies that it will consist of an equal number of "likely voters who are 'soft' Bush supporters or 'soft' Kerry supporters," soft being a polling term for people who might be willing to change their minds.
There are details about the type of warning lights to be used if a candidate runs over his allotted time, about the moderators' conduct, about the coin flip that will be used to determine who goes first (the type of coin or number of flips isn't specified).
There's even a codicil that might be called "the perspiration clause," since it alludes to every candidate's worst fear: an outbreak of Nixon-style flop sweat.
The clause commits the nonpartisan producer, the Commission on Presidential Debates, to use its "best efforts to maintain an appropriate temperature according to industry standards for the entire debate," although it's not clear what "industry standard" temperature is, or even what industry the agreement is referring to.
To be sure, such attention to detail may well be justified by what's on the line. The debates are likely to be closely watched by tens of millions of voters, and could be decisive in determining the election's outcome.
To that end, teams led by veteran Democratic lawyer Vernon Jordan (for Kerry) and former secretary of state James A. Baker III (for Bush) wrangled over the document. Baker and Jordan negotiated most of the agreement in marathon telephone conversations, with one meeting in Texas and a final session on Monday in New York to put the finishing touches on it. The two men started with the 2000 agreement between Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore and advanced from there, with attorney Mark Wallace, Bush-Cheney's deputy campaign manager, doing most of the drafting.
The agreement is only one page longer than the 2000 version but includes many more restrictions on format, audience participation and the moderator, according to officials in both parties.
Although the Bush-Cheney campaign will not confirm it, Democratic and Republican officials say Baker went into the negotiations asking for two debates and wanted to eliminate the town hall meeting scheduled for Oct. 8 in St. Louis. Baker yielded on that point but seems to have won on most others, including focusing the first debate on foreign policy and homeland security issues -- areas in which the Bush camp feels it has an advantage. The first debate is typically the most widely watched.
All of the maneuvering was driven by long memories of disasters and near-disasters since the first nationally televised presidential campaign debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, said David Steinberg, a professor of communication at the University of Miami who specializes in presidential debates. The university is the site of the first Bush-Kerry session. Among other things, Steinberg recalled, Michael Dukakis expressed concerns about appearing side-by-side with the much taller George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Gerald Ford had a special rail built on his podium to avert a potentially calamitous water-glass spill.
The campaigns' decision to switch the focus of the third debate, to be held in Tempe, Ariz., from foreign-policy subjects to domestic topics has already made moderator Bob Schieffer's life a little more difficult. Schieffer, the veteran CBS News correspondent, had been preparing questions for the candidates about Iraq and related subjects for weeks. Now he has to think up some new domestic questions.
"I guess it's just like always in politics, that both camps are so worried about something unexpected happening that they're trying to put as many controls as they can on it," Schieffer said yesterday. "But, whatever. . . . It's just part of the process now."