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Tuesday, 3 October, 2000, 16:18 GMT
Debating for the White House
The stage at University of Massachusetts in Boston
Organisers are busy behind the scenes
The US presidential debates have become key dates in the campaign for the White House, and with Al Gore and George W Bush running so closely in the polls they could prove a deciding factor. US affairs analyst Gordon Corera explains the format

There are three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, each presided over by Jim Lehrer from PBS (America's public service broadcaster), who moderated the 1996 debates. Each debate lasts 90 minutes and begins at 2100 Eastern Time (0200 UK time).

  • 3 October, Boston
    The two presidential candidates stand behind lecterns - the traditional and most formal format but with more flexible rules than in past debates. Candidates give two-minute answers followed by one-minute responses, and then up to three and a half minutes of additional discussion. In the other two debates, candidates have two minutes to respond to a question and then unlimited discussion.

  • 5 October, Centre College in Danville, Kentucky
    The vice presidential debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney sees them seated at a table to encourage a more conversational tone.

  • 11 October, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
    This debate uses a television talk show format, with George W Bush and Al Gore seated at a table.

  • 17 October, St. Louis
    A town hall format, with questions from an audience.

    The lectern style is thought to favour Mr Gore and the table format with its looser style of conversation should help Mr Bush. Arguably, the first debate in the series matters most in cementing perceptions, but the final debate is the least predictable and may have the most impact.

    The audience is specially selected by Gallup to include undecided voters for the town hall debate.

    At the other two debates, tickets are divided between sponsors, the campaigns and the organisers.

    Negotiating the debates

    There is no requirement that presidential candidates debate with each other during the campaign.

    Participation is usually the product of careful calculation and negotiation. Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 all managed to avoid debates.

    The last three presidential debates have been organised by the Commission on Presidential Debates who took over from the League of Women Voters.

    Established in 1987, the Commission is a non-profit, non-partisan corporation that earlier in the year proposed a plan for the debates which the candidates ultimately accepted.

    George W Bush was widely seen as having stumbled when he tried to avoid the plan proposed by the Commission. He initially said he would participate in just one commission-sponsored debate, along with two other debates moderated by NBC's Tim Russert and CNN's Larry King (seen as a 'soft' interviewer).

    Al Gore had boasted that he would debate Mr Bush "anytime, anywhere" but then said that this was based on Mr Bush first accepting the Commission proposals.

    The media and public took Al Gore's side and George Bush was portrayed as trying to duck the challenge by proposing debates which would have been shorter, less intense and watched by fewer people.

    Until this election, whichever candidate had the lead in the polls or the advantage of incumbency tried to intimidate the commission and the opposing candidate into bending the schedule to his own advantage.

    But with the race so close this year it proved impossible.

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