In a First, Debates Give Presidential Candidates the Topics Ahead Of Time

Are the presidential debates becoming too scripted?

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This post was updated at 10:30 a.m. with comment from Candy Crowley.

Are the presidential debates in danger of becoming as scripted as professional wrestling?

Wednesday afternoon, the Commission on Presidential Debates quietly posted a press release announcing the topics for the first presidential debate in Denver on October 3. What the commission didn't say is that this may be the first time in history presidential candidates have been given the topics of a debate ahead of time.

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"We had been thinking about this for awhile," says CPD executive director Janet Brown. "CPD's intention is to have the candidates come prepared for a more in-depth conversation."

But some say the release of topics sets a bad precedent.

Though specific questions were not given, debate moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS NewsHour announced the topics of the questions on the commission Web site, saying that three questions will be on the economy, one on health care, one on the role of government and one on governing.

"Romney, Obama debates to be more controlled and duller than usual," election reform blog Democracy Chronicles warned Thursday.

George Farah at election watchdog group Open Debates says he is also concerned about the change.

"Now candidates know that they don't have to prepare answers on, say, crime or trade. ... This is a step backward in a presidential debate," says Farah, who authored No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. "It eliminates any surprises and candidates will just cite memorized soundbytes."

Candy Crowley, CNN chief political correspondent and the moderator of the second presidential debate, says she thinks the released topics are general enough that candidates won't have an unfair advantage. "But I would love a debate where the candidates have nothing to do with it, and just show up," she says.

Farah believes the Obama and Romney campaigns may have had undue influence on this year's debates, as attorneys Benjamin Ginsberg from the Romney campaign and Robert Bauer from the Obama campaign negotiated the 2012 debate contract.

Neither lawyer responded to request for comment from Whispers, but Brown said that it's normal for the campaigns to negotiate the contract. "The contract is shared with us. But it's not something we've ever controlled," she says.

While the release of topics may produce more scripted moments, the commission has to its credit introduced a new format to this year's debate that encourages more in-depth discussions. The new format features bigger time blocks for topics in both the first and fourth debates.

But it is hard to argue that the presidential debates haven't become more controlled over the years.

Until 1988, the debates were overseen by the League of Women Voters, a group Farah says was much better at putting the voters' priorities over the candidates in the debates, and not excluding third party candidates.

Under the League of Women Voters, the presidential debates had a large impact on the elections. In 1976, Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter won a very close election against Republican incumbent Gerald Ford after Ford blundered in a debate. In 1980, Ronald Reagan's experience as an actor helped turn the tide and lead to his landslide victory over Carter.

By 1988, however, the League decided it would pull out of sponsoring the presidential debates, saying the campaigns had negotiated "behind closed doors" in a way that had given them too much control over the debate proceedings, questioners and audience. The League released a strongly worded statement at the time that read:

"It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

Farah thinks CPD is in danger of becoming that accessory now, pointing out that the commission was created by the Republican and Democratic parties.

Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League, says she isn't so sure. She acknowledges that the League "did not feel in good conscience" in 1988 that it could participate in debates controlled by the candidates. But she also says she has hope the first presidential debate's new format will be beneficial to voters.

"Debates are still an invaluable opportunity for voters to get first-hand information from the candidates," she says. "We trust voters can see through what they need to see through in order to make a good decision [in the fall]."

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at eflock@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.