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Let the Games Begin — Maybe

Friday kicks off the debate season for the 2008 presidential race — although John McCain has asked to delay it due to the economic crisis.

As planned, the first debate was to take place in Oxford, Miss., this Friday; the second Oct. 7 in Nashville, Tenn., and the third Oct. 15 in Hempstead, N.Y. In addition, we predict one of the highest-rated debates will be the vice presidential matchup Oct. 2 in St. Louis, when the traditional attack dogs of the campaign, with or without cosmetics, go at each other.

The season seems pretty sparse compared to the primaries, when the Democrats participated in 19 debates and the Republicans 16.

Actually, the season isn't abbreviated at all compared with traditional debate slates since 1976, when debates became an essentially mandatory fixture of national campaigns. (The four Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 apprently did not spawn a rush to replicate them, although there were intra-party bouts.) The bicentennial year there were three presidential debates and one for vice president, a model repeated in 1992, 2000 and 2004. A two-plus-one model ruled in 1984, 1988 and 1996.

The 1980 race had either one or two debates, depnding on your tolerance or admiration for third-party candidates. There was one debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, and one between Reagan and independent John Anderson. (There were almost no debates that year as Carter refused to debate with Anderson present and Reagan with Anderson absent. Reagan blinked first.)

The process of pairing the candidates has gone relatively smoothly since 1987, when a Commission on Presidential Debates was set up. It has run all the subsequent events. This year, the commission is hailing the debate format as a breakthrough:

"Indeed, both campaigns, without public controversy, with quiet
cooperation and with minor revisions, have agreed to CPD's proposal
that each debate will be divided into issue segments allowing time for
each candidate to comment on that issue followed by a free-flow
conversation/discussion between the candidates including the
possibility of direct exchange between the candidates."

Furthermore, the commission reports that "the first presidential debate will focus on foreign policy and national security; the third presidential debate will focus on domestic and economic policy. The second presidential (town meeting format) debate will include any issues raised by members of that audience and online, and the vice presidential debate will include foreign and domestic policy."

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For transcripts of all the historic debates, we recommend visiting the The American Presidency Project's debate page.