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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 19:41 GMT 20:41 UK
Tough fight over debate rules
By Kevin Anderson
BBC News Online in Washington

Lawyers for George W Bush and John Kerry have taken weeks to hammer out a 32-page document laying out the ground rules for the upcoming US presidential election debates.

Intense negotiations have been going on until the last moment.

Technicians prepare for the first TV debate in the US presidential campaign in Miami
The first of three televised debates will take place on Thursday in Miami
But the TV networks that will show the debates and the journalists who are set to moderate them are baulking at the rules.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has said that it cannot force the networks to abide by the agreement.

Two of the moderators, Charles Gibson of ABC and Bob Schieffer of CBS, have refused to sign the agreement.

Concessions and demands

The two sides have fought hard for every possible advantage in the ground rules drafted by legal heavyweights.

Former Secretary of State James Baker argued for the Bush camp, while Vernon Jordan - well-known Washington lawyer and former adviser to President Clinton - represented the Kerry campaign.

The agreement leaves little to chance.

The Bush campaign wanted lecterns 10ft (3m) apart and just 4ft (1.25m) high so that Mr Kerry would not appear to tower over the president

One debate will feature questions from the audience, but the questions will be screened by the moderator.

And the audience will not be made up of undecided voters, but of the candidates' "soft supporters" who have been selected by the Gallup poll organisation.

The Kerry campaign made several concessions in return for three debates instead of two.

The Bush campaign wanted lecterns 10ft (3m) apart and just 4ft (1.25m) high so that Mr Kerry would not appear to tower over the president.

The Bush campaign also fought hard to have visible warning lights to indicate when the candidates had gone over their allotted speaking time.

Each candidate will be given two minutes to answer and allowed 90 seconds for a rebuttal.

Mr Kerry is not known for being a succinct speaker, and the Bush campaign did not want to allow him to "filibuster", a tactic used in the Senate where speakers keep talking to extend a debate and prevent a vote.

The candidates are also not allowed to question each other directly or step out from behind the lecterns.

It takes away two tactics that Mr Kerry has used in past debates against his opponents.

His campaign also allowed the first debate to be on national security, which the Bush campaign believes to be its man's strength.

But the concessions were not all made by the Kerry camp.

The presidential march, Hail to the Chief, will not be played as Mr Bush enters the hall and the presidential seal will not appear on Mr Bush's lecterns.

Network objections

However, these carefully laid plans could be derailed at the last minute as the TV networks say they will not abide by certain restrictions.

The ground rules lay out details for TV coverage of the debates.

These include provisions that cameras should be locked in place and forbid the use of shots of one candidate while the other candidate is answering a question.

Channels including Fox News, NBC and CNN, which will be providing coverage for the debates, have said they reserve the right to make their own decisions on what to show and will not be subject to agreements between the two candidates.

The two moderators who have refused to sign the agreement could yet be replaced under the terms of the ground rules.

Charles Gibson is set to moderate the 8 October debate in Missouri, while Bob Schieffer is scheduled to moderate the 13 October debate in Arizona.

The candidates' campaigns have not made any moves to change moderators.

In previous debates, they had agreed to the rules and regulations, but moderators had not been required to sign them.




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