This fall's debates: What's new and what's not

CBS

President Obama, left, and Mitt Romney, right.

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

(CBS News) In a general election saturated by a never-ending series of charges and counter-accusations, one area over which the campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will likely not argue much is perhaps the most heavily scrutinized ritual in choosing the next president: the debates.

On Wednesday, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the formats, locations and dates of the three scheduled presidential debates and the lone vice-presidential forum. A privately funded, nonprofit organization, the CPD has been responsible for producing every general election presidential and vice-presidential debate since it was founded in advance of the 1988 election.

Before that year's contest between Vice President George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, there was no established process governing the ground rules, and negotiations were often testy between the rival camps -- even in the 1984 race between Ronald Regan and Walter Mondale, who themselves got along without much acrimony. That year, the two campaigns rejected over 100 reporters from being considered as moderators or panelists, and afterwards a consensus developed in favor of standardizing ground rules for the future.

After a brief period in which two separate commissions were created, each of which was loaded with academics and politicians, the chairmen from the Democratic and Republican National Committees came together to establish the CPD in 1986. Current co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, who has sat on the panel since he co-founded it during his time as head of the RNC, once spent untold hours in negotiations with the campaign managers about the debate moderators and formats.

But the negotiating process has become far less contentious over the years.

"The good sign is my phone hasn't rung this morning," Fahrenkopf said a day after the CPD's announcement on the 2012 debate structure. "But I'm sure Chicago and Boston are going over the press release, so if there are minor things around the edges that they both agree on, we'll consider it and make a determination. On the basics, there's no longer any input from the candidates."

The 2012 presidential debates will take place Oct. 3 at the University of Denver; Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.; and Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. The VP debate will be held Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky. All will run from 9-10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

Fahrenkopf noted that 2008 was the first presidential cycle in which the CPD was not sued by a third-party candidate who had been barred from entering the debates for failing to reach the commission's required participation threshold of 15 percent support in five major polls.

With no one other than Obama and Romney coming anywhere close to that level this time around, there is little indication that either major-party campaign will have major grievances with the conditions that the commission has laid out.

"The President is looking forward to the debates," said Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina. "We'll work with the Commission and the Romney campaign on the details of them."

In one new twist, the first and last presidential debate this year will feature six 15-minute topic "pods," in which the focus will remain on a single issue (the second presidential debate will be in the town-hall format, in which voters put questions directly to the candidates).

The topics for each pod will be announced in September by the moderators, whom the CPD commissioners will select and reveal in mid-August.

Fahrenkopf said that he expects the pods in the first debate -- which will focus on domestic policy -- to address major topics like unemployment, education, and the deficit.

"We're revealing that in advance, so the candidates know they're going to have to be prepared to do 15 minutes of heavy discussion on a certain topic with the moderator," he said. "In many ways, it helps the candidates. They're not going to be asked who the president of Kyrgyzstan is or whether they wear [Jockey underwear]."

The four debate moderators will be chosen from a small pool of Washington journalists who fit the dual requirement of being comfortable with the technical idiosyncrasies of live television, in addition to having achieved a level of stature in the field commensurate with being handed such a prestigious and consequential role.

The CPD aims for a diverse quartet of moderators, all of whom will presumably be agreeable to both sides, as the commission says that neither campaign will be consulted during the selection process.

One formatting clause that may spark some negotiation between the commission and the two campaigns is the CPD's "recommendation" that the candidates be seated at a table with a moderator, rather than stand behind podiums.

Fahrenkopf maintains that the 2000 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, in which the candidates were seated, demonstrated the improved nature and tenor of the exchanges when podiums aren't involved.

The question of how much the debates really matter in determining the election winner is the subject of a long-running debate of its own.

John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Obama each appeared to benefit from their debate performances on their road to the White House, but Alan Schroeder -- a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and the author of the 2008 book "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV" -- noted that the general election debates typically have the highest impact on a small pool of low-information voters.

"What the academic research shows is that the debates tend to reinforce perceptions that already exist, rather than change votes," he said.

Unlike in past presidential elections, when one candidate has gone into the fall face-offs with a perceived advantage, Obama and Romney both are widely regarded as proficient debaters.

But while Schroeder said that each candidate was "very capable" and "technically competent" on a debate stage, he also said that neither one benefits from an intangible quality that has paid off in spades for past candidates.

"What's missing from both of their performances is I don't think either of them particularly enjoys the experience of debating, and I think the very best debaters have to like it," Schroeder said. "Bill Clinton is the gold standard here. He wasn't just technically good at it. He liked doing it."

One potential advantage for Romney is that he will be well-practiced, having participated in over 20 debates against his fellow Republican candidates during the 2012 primary season.

It will have been four years, on the other hand, since Obama squared off in his three debates against John McCain, though Romney hasn't taken part in a one-on-one format since his 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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