For the first time, the Commission on Presidential Debates is limiting two of the three debates by topic, reserving the first meeting on Sept. 30 for domestic policy and the third on Oct. 13 for foreign affairs.
"The issue here is it basically allows more in-depth conversation and follow-up and encourages a direct exchange between the candidates without the moderator having to worry" about balancing the questions, commission co-chairman Paul Kirk said at a news conference Thursday.
The second forum on Oct. 8 will be a town hall-style format where a group of undecided voters can question the candidates on any issue. Following the custom in past election cycles, the nonpartisan commission did not consult with any of the presidential campaigns before devising the plan.
Kirk said the candidates may negotiate changes, but he expects both President Bush and presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry to accept the conditions and participate in all three debates.
"As a political matter, my expectation would be that any candidate who passes the criteria of the commission will look forward to the opportunity to debate," he said.
A single debate between the vice presidential nominees on Oct. 5 will cover the full range of issues.
Leaders of the commission also defended their decision to exclude — as they have in the past — candidates who draw less than 15 percent in national polls, arguing that anyone falling below that threshold doesn't have a realistic shot at the presidency.
A group of third-party candidates and parties, including independent Ralph Nader, have filed a lawsuit challenging the commission's right to sponsor debates, claiming a bias toward Democrats and Republicans. Courts have rejected similar challenges in past years.
"The purpose of the Commission on Presidential Debates is not to use the debates to help someone become competitive," commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf said. "Individuals should debate if they have proved already that they're competitive."
In another departure from the 1996 and 2000 debates, there will be a different moderator for each of the three presidential debates and for the vice presidential debate. Last year, PBS newscaster Jim Lehrer was the sole moderator.
"There will be a little bit more introduction of spontaneity, if you will, from one debate to the other," Kirk said. "There will be a little different dynamic perhaps between the first debate and the others."
Moderators will be selected by early September and most likely come from the realm of television journalists who are more comfortable in front of the camera, Kirk said.
Another difference from past debates: candidates will sit at a conference table rather than stand at podiums.
"The reason for that change is basically to try to get away from what a lot of people feel is a more stilted format," Kirk said. "Experience has shown a lot of viewers and listeners, including ourselves, that the seated format allows for more conversational exchange and free flow."
Candidates will sit on stools during the town hall debate and have the option to walk around the stage as they take questions from audience members.
As announced last year, the first debate will take place Sept. 30 at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., followed by a second meeting Oct. 8 at Washington University in St. Louis. The final debate is scheduled for Oct. 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe. The vice presidential debate will be held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Oct. 5.
All debates will be televised nationally starting at 9 p.m. Eastern Time and run 90 minutes.