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Debate rules limit handshake, audience, yawning, yammering

SUNDAY, SEPT. 26, 2004

MIAMI – Reality TV it’s not.

When President Bush and John Kerry face off at the University of Miami on Thursday, they’ll be operating under a set of rules so restrictive they even dictate where the candidates’ families sit – “front row, diagonally across from the candidate directly in his line of sight.”

“It’s written by lawyers,” University of Miami communications professor David Steinberg said of the 32-page contract that advisers for both campaigns agreed to last week. “They want to eliminate surprises.”

That means no candid shots of one candidate yawning while the other yammers: “When a candidate is speaking,” the rules intone, “TV coverage will be limited to the candidate speaking.”

It also means no props, no audience participation other than “silent observation” and no quizzing of each other’s stances.

The product of a lengthy tussle between the warring campaigns, the “memorandum of understanding” is rife with phrases like “in addition to the rules in subparagraph a” and seeks to spell out every detail of the debate.

It starts with the walk-on, prompted by a “verbal cue” from the moderator, includes the handshake and orchestrates the closing, noting that even if the clock has run out on the 90-minute debate, the candidates get the last word.

“The commission will use its best efforts to ensure that the TV networks carry the entire debate, even if it runs past the specified ending time,” the contract mandates, referring to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized the events since 1988.

With the polls suggesting a close race and the debates likely to prove critical, Steinberg said the contract is carefully constructed to avoid gaffes.

It’s a lesson learned, he said, from mistakes made in prior debates – like the time Jimmy Carter invoked his daughter, Amy, when talking about nuclear arms control, opening himself up to Republican ridicule that the teenager was one of his advisers.

“There’s some level of discomfort which you can minimize by making it more predictable,” said Steinberg, who also oversees the school’s debate program.

The agreement even dictates the size of the lecterns, down to the inch – 50 inches high – and prohibits the use of risers by either candidate “to create an impression of elevated height.”

The candidates are barred from appearing with any “props, notes, charts, diagrams or other writings or other tangible things,” but they have unfettered flexibility when it comes to taking notes.

They’re permitted any “size, color and type” of paper they prefer with any type of pen or pencil.

But they can’t waltz onto the stage with the materials. They must be passed along to debate staff beforehand, who “will place such paper, pens and pencils” on the lectern. Though it’s likely neither man will ask to be called “exalted leader” or “your excellency,” the contract does give each candidate the opportunity to “determine the manner by which he prefers to be addressed.”

On the campaign trail, each of the candidates has sought to bolster a persona as a tough guy – Bush donning a flight suit to land on an aircraft carrier and Kerry photographed with a rifle.

But bowing to the demands of the camera, at the debate each will be allowed his own makeup person on the set.

The only thing left to chance, it seems, is the order of questioning.

That’s to be determined by a simple coin toss. But true to form, even the flip of the coin is complicated: It’s to be conducted by the commission at least 72 hours before the first debate. And according to the contract, the winner has the option of choosing whether to take the first or second question or of choosing whether to give the first or second closing.

The loser? “The choice of question order or closing statement order not exercised by the winner of the coin toss.”


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