If the seven Democratic presidential candidates give especially well-spoken and thoughtful answers to the first question at their first joint debate Wednesday night, there is a reason: the candidates were given the question.

The question is: "In the Cabinet Room now, there are five pictures of past presidents: Taft, Hoover, Eisenhower, Lincoln and Jefferson. If you became president, who would you ask to be included? Why? Removed? Why?" The candidates have one minute each to reply.

While not told any of the other questions, the candidates have been provided with details about the format of the two-hour debate, which will be broadcast from Houston by the Public Broadcasting Service and hosted by William F. Buckley with assistance from Robert S. Strauss.

Following the portraits question, a 1 1/2-minute video biography of each of the seven contenders will be shown. Next will be "a substantive question by Buckley or Strauss regarding something the candidate has said already." The candidate has 90 seconds to reply and each of the other Democrats will have 40 seconds "to rebut or add."

Then it's video-break time: a 10-minute film of the candidates on the campaign trail, to be followed by a series of questions taking 40 minutes. Each Democrat will have two minutes to make closing statements.

The order of questioning will be determined by Ping-Pong ball. Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire will select Ping-Pong balls marked with the names of the candidates.