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Monday, October 15, 2012

Memo Outlines Format and Rules for Candidate Debates

No props. No “show of hands” questions by the moderator. And by all means, no direct questions from one candidate to another.

Those rules, and many others, for the presidential debates were revealed on Monday when the memorandum of understanding between the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney surfaced for the first time. The lawyerly memos are de rigueur during debate seasons, but the viewing public rarely knows about the restrictions.

This season the agreement between the two campaigns is 21 pages long. Completed on Oct. 3, the day of the first presidential debate, it was published on Monday by Time magazine's The Page amid what the site called “concern” inside both campaigns that the moderator of the second presidential debate, Candy Crowley of CNN, might break the rules. Ms. Crowley, however, never accepted the rules, nor did any of the other moderators selected by the group that holds the debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Ms. Crowley's debate, to be held on Tuesday night on Long Island, has a town hall format, with voters asking questions of the candidates. In interviews Ms. Crowley has indicated that she will follow up on the voter questions and further the conversation between the candidates - in stark contrast to the memo, which states that after each candidate has a chance to answer, “the moderator will invite the candidates to respond to the previous answers,” but “will not rephrase the question or open a new topic.” The memo also says explicitly that the moderator “will not ask follow-up questions.”

The campaigns' concerns about follow-ups were ridiculed by some of Ms. Crowley's fellow journalists on Monday. Appearing on CNN shortly after the memo was leaked, Ms. Crowley cited precedents for follow-up questions: On Tuesday night, voters “will have the questions. And as was the case in the Charlie Gibson town hall meeting and the Tom Brokaw town hall meeting in presidential campaigns past, there is a time after that for follow-up and for furthering the discussion.”

George Farah, an anti-trust lawyer who runs Open Debates, a group that calls the current debate system antidemocratic, said the town hall format had become more constrained by “candidate manipulation” over time. “In 1992, audience members and the moderator could ask anything, and no one knew the questions to be asked. In 1996, follow-up questions were banned,” he said. “In 2004, all questions had to be prescreened by the moderator in advance, in some ways arguably reducing the audience members to props. In 2012, there are new restrictions on what the moderator herself can do â€" no follow-ups, no reinterpretations of questions, nothing really, except keep time and hold the microphone.”

The memos of understanding for the 2000 and 2008 debates have never been made public. The memo this year specifies that the candidates will appear together only at the commission-sponsored debates, not in any other debate-type setting. “This is particularly harmful,” Mr. Farah said, “considering that the new format allows for far fewer issues to be addressed during the debates. If we're going to have fewer questions, then naturally we need more debates.”