Presidential Debates Between McCain and Obama Will Have Extra Importance

But let's kick out the spinners and allow the candidates' performances to speak for themselves.

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With no sitting president or vice president on the November ballot since 1952, this will be an extraordinary year in the run for the White House.

It underscores the importance of the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate in September and October. Since many voters, surprisingly enough, don't focus on the election until Labor Day, it makes these encounters more important than ever.

The campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama should agree soon on holding these debates without any prolonged discussion. In the past, there have been debates over the debates, often for silly reasons.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, chaired by former party Chairmen Paul Kirk (Democrat) and Frank Fahrenkopf (Republican), knows the ropes on arranging the debates. It is no easy matter of logistics, with the interest of the campaigns, the Secret Service, the press, and a myriad of details over arrangements.

As in the recent debates, there will be a single moderator with no panel of reporters to allow the candidates more time to deliver their rehearsed sound bites.

The candidates will not be discouraged from confronting each other if the opportunity arises. It should, with the gulf of differences on issues between Obama and McCain.

The commission expects to be sued by fringe candidates who do not hit the 15 percent threshold in the major polls to qualify for the debates. Ralph Nader is sure to sue as he has in the past, and Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party candidate, may, too. The lawsuits will be tossed out, as they should be.

The choice of moderators is made by the commission. In the past, PBS's Jim Lehrer of the News Hour has been the ideal moderator. He is fair, has a sense of humor, and is not given to "gotcha" questions. Most important, his TV background always brings a minimum of any nervous jitters.

(Full disclosure: Lehrer has been a friend for many years since both of us started as reporters in Dallas longer ago than we like to admit.)

One idea for this year: The press should insist that the so-called spinners for the candidates be kept out of the newsroom while reporters file their stories. Let the spinners, who always claim their candidate won with ease, set up shop in another room or locale.

All considered, these debates could determine which candidate takes the oath of office next January 20.