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Originally published Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Candidates agree on high-stakes debates

The Obama and McCain campaigns agreed to an unusual, free-flowing format for the three televised presidential debates, which begin Friday.

The New York Times

Tonight

The 40th-anniversary broadcast of "60 Minutes" will include interviews with presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama. The show is on KIRO-Channel 7 at 7 p.m.

The Obama and McCain campaigns agreed to an unusual, free-flowing format for the three televised presidential debates, which begin Friday.

But at the insistence of the McCain campaign, the vice-presidential debate between Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her Democratic rival, Sen. Joseph Biden, will be much more structured, advisers to both campaigns said Saturday after a hard-fought agreement was reached.

The agreement calls for shorter question-and-answer segments than those for the presidential nominees and more structure for the back-and-forth between Palin and Biden. There will be brief opportunities for direct exchanges between the two.

McCain advisers said they had been slightly concerned that a loose format could leave Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive.

Both campaigns see the four debates as pivotal to a presidential race that is extraordinarily close and is drawing intense interest from voters. Moreover, the upheaval in the financial markets has recast the race in recent days, which both sides believe will heighten attention for the debates.

The wrangling was chiefly between the McCain-Palin camp and the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which is sponsoring the forums.

Commission members wanted a relaxed format that included time for unpredictable questioning and challenges between the vice-presidential candidates. Last week, it rejected a proposal from advisers to Palin and Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, for few, if any, unfettered exchanges.

A commission member said the new agreement on the vice-presidential debate Oct. 2 calls for shorter blocks of candidate statements and open discussion than at the presidential debates.

McCain aides wanted to tighten the time limits for Palin and Biden at their 90-minute forum, rather than follow the commission's original format. McCain advisers said they want Palin to have opportunities to present McCain's positions, rather than spending time talking about her experience or playing defense against Biden.

While the debates between presidential nominees are traditionally the main events in the fall election season, public interest in Palin has proved extraordinary, and a large audience is expected for her debate debut.

Advisers to Biden said they were comfortable with either format. But the two campaigns have similar concerns about the vice-presidential matchup in St. Louis: that Palin, as a new player in national politics, or Biden, as a loquacious and gaffe-prone speaker, could commit a momentum-changing misstep in their debate.

Given the potential for all four debates to draw huge audiences — by some estimates they could attract more than the 40 million people who watched parts of the party conventions — the negotiations between the two campaigns have been intense.

Obama vs. McCain

For the three debates between the men at the top of the tickets, they have been largely free of brinkmanship: Neither side threatened to pull out, and concerns about camera angles and stagecraft have been minor.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, and McCain did not intercede to settle disputes. They agreed to one substantive change to the format originally proposed by the debate commission, giving each candidate two minutes to make a statement at the beginning of each segment on a new topic.

Obama successfully sought to flip the proposed topics for the first and third debates, so foreign policy is first and economic and other domestic issues come last. There is a second debate, in the format of a town-hall meeting, in which the candidates will sit on director's chairs and take questions from the audience and Internet users on any topic.

The debate commission had proposed that the first debate be on economic issues, and the third on foreign policy, in part, people involved in the process said, because the first debate usually is the most watched, and many voters rank the economy as their top concern.

Obama wanted foreign policy first to show viewers that he could provide depth, strength and intelligence on those issues, his advisers said, given that McCain consistently wins higher ratings in polls as a potential commander in chief.

McCain also wanted foreign-policy topics to come first, his aides said, in the hope of capitalizing on his positive reputation on national-security issues across party lines.

Obama wanted domestic issues to come last; advisers said they believed even before the start of the financial crisis that the election was most likely to turn on the state of the economy and that he wanted the final televised exchange to focus on those concerns. He has argued that McCain would continue the economic policies of President Bush.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham represented the McCain campaign, Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel the Obama camp.

A few aides from both camps also were involved, hammering out issues and then holding conference calls with commission members to reach final agreements, people involved in the process said.

"Everything matters"

Obama's advisers have been reviewing McCain's debates with George W. Bush from the 2000 Republican primary, studying in particular his temperament and mood and looking for potential flash points of anger.

Those debates, aides said, are more instructive in many respects than McCain's primary debates this year.

McCain has yet to spend much time watching the dozens of primary-debate performances of Obama over the past two years, McCain advisers said.

But they said a small staff of aides has been reviewing them and that McCain would see some highlights this week.

The campaigns had no say over the choice of moderators: Jim Lehrer, of PBS; Tom Brokaw, of NBC; and Bob Schieffer, of CBS; for the presidential debates; and Gwen Ifill, of PBS, for the vice-presidential debate.

"Everything matters and issues can always come up, such as the size of podiums — like for [Jimmy] Carter and [Gerald] Ford in 1976 — to the timer lights if the candidate doesn't like them," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who advised Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. "There hasn't really been a 'debate about the debates' this year, but that can change in a minute."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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