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updated 9/21/2008 11:30:48 AM ET 2008-09-21T15:30:48

The Obama and McCain campaigns have agreed to an unusual free-flowing format for the three televised presidential debates, which begin Friday, but the McCain camp fought for and won a much more structured approach for the questioning at the vice-presidential debate, advisers to both campaigns said Saturday.

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At the insistence of the McCain campaign, the Oct. 2 debate between the Republican nominee for vice president, Gov. Sarah Palin, and her Democratic rival, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., will have shorter question-and-answer segments than those for the presidential nominees, the advisers said. There will also be much less opportunity for free-wheeling, direct exchanges between the running mates.

McCain advisers said they had been concerned that a loose format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive.

The wrangling was chiefly between the McCain-Palin camp and the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which is sponsoring the forums.

Campaigns see debates as pivotal
Commission members wanted a relaxed format that included time for unpredictable questioning and challenges between the two vice-presidential candidates. On Wednesday, the commission unanimously rejected a proposal sought by advisers to Ms. Palin and Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee, to have the moderator ask questions and the candidates answer, with no time for unfettered exchanges. Advisers to Mr. Biden say they were comfortable with either format.

Both campaigns see the four debates as pivotal moments in a presidential race that is not only extraordinarily close but also drawing intense interest from voters; roughly 40 million viewers watched the major speeches at the two parties’ conventions. The upheaval in the financial markets has recast the race in recent days, moreover, which both sides believe will only heighten attention for the debates.

A commission member said that the new agreement on the vice-presidential debate was reached late Saturday morning. It calls for shorter blocks of candidate statements and open discussion than at the presidential debates.

McCain advisers said they were only somewhat concerned about Ms. Palin’s debating skills compared with those of Mr. Biden, who has served six terms in the Senate, or about his chances of tripping her up. Instead, they say, they wanted Ms. Palin to have opportunities to present Mr. McCain’s positions, rather than spending time talking about her experience or playing defense.

While the debates between presidential nominees are traditionally the main events in the fall election season, the public interest in Ms. Palin has proved extraordinary, and a large audience is expected for her national debate debut.

Similar concerns among campaigns
Indeed, both the McCain and Obama campaigns have similar concerns about the vice-presidential matchup in St. Louis: that Ms. Palin, of Alaska, as a new player in national politics, or Mr. Biden, of Delaware, as a loquacious and gaffe-prone speaker, could commit a momentum-changing misstep in their debate.

The negotiations for the three 90-minute debates between the men at the top of the tickets were largely free of brinksmanship. Neither side threatened to pull out, and concerns about camera angles and stagecraft were minor.

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic nominee for president, and Mr. McCain did not intercede personally to settle any disputes. They agreed to one substantive change to the format originally proposed by the debate commission, giving them two minutes apiece to make a statement at the beginning of each segment on a new topic.

Mr. Obama successfully sought to flip the proposed topics for the first and third debates, so foreign policy is now coming first and economic and other domestic issues come last. There is a second debate, in the format of a town hall meeting, in which the candidates will sit on director’s chairs and take questions from the audience and Internet users on any topic.

The debate commission had proposed that the first debate be on economic issues and the third on foreign policy — in part, people involved in the process said, because the first debate is usually the most watched, and many voters rank the economy as their top concern.

Mr. Obama wanted foreign policy first to show viewers that he could provide depth, strength and intelligence on those issues, his advisers said, given that Mr. McCain consistently wins higher ratings in opinion polls as a potential commander in chief.

Mr. Obama wanted domestic issues to come last; advisers said that they believed even before the start of the financial crisis that the election was most likely to turn on the state of the economy and that he wanted the final televised exchange to focus on those concerns. He has argued that Mr. McCain would continue the economic policies of President Bush.

Foreign policy topics to come first
Mr. McCain also wanted foreign policy topics to come first in the debates, his aides said, in the hope of capitalizing on his positive reputation on national security issues across party lines.

He wanted limits on the original format for the first and third debates, which had been nine topics with nine minutes of free-flowing debate on each one. Mr. Obama went along, though his aides did insist that at least several minutes of open-ended debate occur in each block of questioning, because they believe he does well in that format.

Now the candidates will be asked a question, each will give an answer of two minutes or less, and then they will mix it up for five additional minutes before moving on to the next question in the same format.

Obama aides also agreed to use lecterns at the first event, which Mr. McCain preferred; at the third debate, the two men will be seated at a round table, in the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions, with the moderator at 6 o’clock.

McCain aides said that they were conscious of the fact that Mr. McCain has a prominent scar on one side of his face, and that they could not predict how prominent it would appear with the camera angles, lighting and make-up.

The debate formats were negotiated by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, representing the McCain campaign, and Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, for the Obama camp. A handful of aides from both camps were also involved, hammering out issues between themselves and then holding conference calls with members of the commission to reach final agreements, people involved in the process said.

Debate camp to being Tuesday
Mr. Obama plans to begin debate camp on Tuesday with a tight circle of advisers at a site in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, his aides say, with a prominent Democratic lawyer, Greg Craig, playing the part of Mr. McCain in mock debates.

The Obama campaign has been studying Mr. McCain’s debate performances from the Republican primary as well as in his 2000 race for president. Each debate has been rated and scored, with briefing points and highlights sent to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama’s advisers have been studying in particular Mr. McCain’s temperament and mood and looking for potential flash points of anger.

Mr. McCain, his advisers say, has yet to spend much time watching the dozens of primary debate performances of Mr. Obama over the last two years. But they said that a small staff of aides had been reviewing them and that Mr. McCain would see some highlights next week.

McCain aides refused to say when his debate camp would be or where, or who was playing Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden. (Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, Democrat of Michigan, is playing Ms. Palin for Mr. Biden’s preparations.)

Mr. Obama plans to sequester himself and a few advisers at his debate camp. The attendance is limited to a small group of foreign policy advisers, each rotating in for separate sessions with Mr. Obama and Mr. Craig.

The choice of Florida, particularly the politically critical region near Tampa, was selected with a dual purpose in mind. While Mr. Obama will have few public events from Tuesday through Friday, aides said, his presence could draw considerable local news media attention in a state where he hopes to fiercely challenge Mr. McCain.

While the intense portion of debate training begins on Tuesday, Mr. Obama has been preparing for weeks, in part by drawing upon his experience debating Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in the Democratic primaries. His aides have been studying those debate performances to address one of his biggest shortcomings: his ability to deliver a tight answer. Already, his campaign is trying to diminish expectations for Mr. Obama’s performance.

“Despite the fact that we got the chance to do this a lot during the primaries, these debates are not by any stretch of the imagination his strong suit,” said Robert Gibbs, a senior strategist to Mr. Obama. “He likes to talk about a problem, give some examples that addresses some solutions and oftentimes that doesn’t fit into the moderator’s allotted time.”

The campaigns had no say over the choice of moderators — Jim Lehrer of PBS, Tom Brokaw of NBC and Bob Schieffer of CBS for the presidential debates, and Gwen Ifill of PBS for the vice-presidential debate.

“Everything matters and issues can always come up, such as the size of podiums — like for Carter and Ford in 1976 — to the timer lights if the candidate doesn’t like them,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who advised Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. “There hasn’t really been a ‘debate about the debates’ this year, but that can change in a minute.”

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting from Miami.

This article, "Pact on Debates Will Let McCain and Obama Spar," first appeared in the New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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