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Prize fighters

"Prize fighters" Continued...

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

Negotiating teams from each candidate's camp met to hammer out final details ahead of the debates. In mid-September, representatives from the Obama and McCain camps agreed to switch the topic of the first debate to foreign policy and national security, sending hosts at the University of Mississippi scrambling to adjust preparations. (Neither side revealed the reasons for the change, but both sides likely gained something they wanted in the deal.)

When the dust settled, so did the final schedule: The candidates would debate foreign policy and national security on Sept. 26 at Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss. The vice presidential candidates meet on Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis to debate foreign and domestic topics. The second presidential debate comes in a town hall format on Oct. 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, and the final round takes place on Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., where Obama and McCain will debate domestic issues.

Each debate will last 90 minutes (with no commercials) and feature a single moderator, who will introduce a question and allow each candidate to answer. The moderator will follow up over the next 10 minutes in a conversational style, allowing the candidates to interact with each other.

There's one formatting exception: the town hall debate. This event will feature a group of some 120 undecided voters enlisted by the Gallup Organization using telephone screening a few days before the debate. The participants will bring at least two questions they'd like to ask the candidates. The moderator will review the questions to cover the widest possible range of topics, but will not change the voters' wording.

With dozens of undecided voters asking virtually anything they want, this night promises to be one of the most revealing for viewers, and most challenging for candidates.

The referees

The enormous task of presiding over a fair fight falls to four lone moderators chosen by the commission.

Jim Lehrer, a 30-year veteran of television news and anchor of PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, will host the first debate. Lehrer has been called "America's moderator" for good reason: During the last five presidential elections, the longtime journalist and author of 18 novels has moderated 10 of the nationally televised debates.

What makes Lehrer such a popular choice? "He gets out of the way," says Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "You don't want a moderator who thinks the debate is about him."

Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV, told WORLD that well-informed, low-key moderators work best in general election debates when viewers need to focus on the candidates and the issues. He thinks the remaining three moderators are good picks: NBC's Tom Brokaw, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, and Washington Week host Gwen Ifill, who will moderate the vice presidential debates.

Schroeder says television journalists are logical choices because of their familiarity and ease with the medium: "For all these moderators-as well as for the candidates-these are the largest audiences they will ever face in their entire careers. You can't be nervous."

The contenders

When the cameras finally go live on debate night, it's hard to imagine the contenders won't fight nerves. For both McCain and Obama, the debates are the culmination of more than 18 months of relentless campaigning. For McCain, it's a pinnacle he's tried to reach for eight years.

Each candidate will have a different task: Obama will aim to convince voters he's experienced enough to handle the presidency and that McCain represents an extension of the Bush administration. McCain will aim to convince voters that his policy plans are different than Bush's and better than Obama's.

In order to succeed, both candidates will need to bring the same thing: mastery of the issues. With no low-brow campaign ads or accusatory press releases for at least 90 minutes, the debates will test the candidates' grasp of the issues and the validity of their proposals. "You can't fake it," says Schroeder.

Just days after the stock market took its deepest plunge since 9/11, viewers will listen for concrete answers to growing economic problems, and moderators will press candidates beyond their usual talking points on the economy and a range of issues. Schroeder says voters should pay attention to whether candidates are giving thoughtful answers: "I think it's a little disrespectful to the audience to just give the same old sound bites they've been giving all along."

Rosanna Perotti, chair of the political science department at Hofstra University, site of the final debate, told WORLD that viewers should also pay attention to how the candidates carry themselves for clues about their leadership skills: Are they thinking critically? Are they making good judgments? Do they handle pressure well? "Citizens are looking for someone who exhibits the qualities necessary to be a good president," she said.

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