Tuesday, September 21, 2004

President Bush’s debate negotiators gave up one big “quid” for some small but important “quos” from Sen. John Kerry’s debate team to reach the agreement announced yesterday, sources close to the negotiations said.

While agreeing to the three debates the Kerry team wanted — including a “town hall” encounter — Team Bush, led by James A. Baker III, also got the Democratic presidential nominee’s side to agree to switch the debate topics to make foreign policy the subject of the first debate.

The Bush negotiators also won a two-minute limit on the candidates’ responses, a rule they say will restrict Mr. Kerry’s “grandstanding” tendencies.

A bipartisan commission had proposed making the first debate about domestic policy while foreign policy — seen as Mr. Bush’s strong suit — was proposed as the topic for the third debate.

Because the first debate has historically drawn the largest television audience and the third debate gets the smallest TV viewership, the topic switch was a major gain for Team Bush.

Mr. Kerry’s negotiators, meanwhile, won three chances for their man to appear side-by-side, as an equal, with the president — and three chances for Mr. Bush to misspeak, which Mr. Kerry’s supporters say has been the president’s tendency in unscripted exchanges.

“The important thing was for Kerry to be able to be there with the president of the United States, and the more times he does that, the more it elevates his stature,” said Democratic political consultant Joe Cerrell.

While the switch in topics was the major concession won by Mr. Baker’s negotiating team, not all Republicans believe it is a clear advantage to debate foreign policy first. Some said that could provide Mr. Kerry with his best shot at finally bringing coherence and persuasiveness to his famously contradictory criticism of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy.

Beyond that, the Bush team says it won the crucial small-issues battle, such as ruling out what Bush debate planners — who have spent hours viewing videos of Mr. Kerry’s previous debates — described as the Democrat’s penchant for “filibustering” and “grandstanding.”

Kerry debate chief negotiator Vernon Jordan agreed to the Bush team’s demand for strictly enforcing a two-minutes limit on each side’s response to questions from the moderator or audience members. Penalties for violators of the two-minute rule including flashing lights, buzzers and eventual microphone cutoffs.

“The Bush negotiators are really proud of that one because their candidate can’t talk for more than two minutes on any subject,” said Democratic campaign adviser Gale Kaufman. “But two minutes makes it impossible to talk about anything substantive. The Bush people did win on that one. Too bad.”

During the town hall encounter, the audience that will ask the candidates questions will be made up not of undecided voters but of “soft Kerry” and “soft Bush” supporters.

The reason, as one Bush insider put it, was that undecided voters historically tend ultimately to favor the challenger. That would tend to skew the questions to Mr. Kerry’s advantage. The Bush campaign figured undecideds would be especially suspect in the superheated wartime atmosphere of this election.

Dividing the audience evenly between self-identified Bush and Kerry supporters — all of them identified by pollsters as saying they could be persuaded to change their minds — was the safer way to go, Bush campaign officials said.

Just to make sure the president will not be ambushed in the town hall debate by Bush-haters posing as something else, the Baker team wrung this concession from the Kerry side: All audience questions will have to be submitted in advance, in writing, to the moderator.

The moderator will choose which written questions to ask, call on the writer to stand and ask the candidate directly. If the questioner tries to pull a fast one by ad libbing, the moderator is obligated to cut off the questioner’s microphone.

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