updated 9/20/2004 7:10:28 PM ET 2004-09-20T23:10:28

Negotiators for President Bush and Democrat John Kerry agreed Monday to three 90-minute debates beginning Sept. 30, including one town-hall format with questions from undecided voters in the audience.

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The two campaigns essentially went along with recommendations by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates — except that the topic for the first debate will be foreign policy and homeland security rather than the economy, as the commission had suggested.

The final debate, which the commission had said should be about foreign policy, will now be about the economy.

Details of the debates were announced by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the chief negotiator for Bush, and attorney Vernon Jordan for Kerry.

The first debate will be Sept. 30 at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., the second one — with the town-hall style format — at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 8, and the third at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., on Oct. 13.

There also will be a vice presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland on Oct. 5.

Both Bush and Kerry “are pleased with today’s announcement and look forward to the debates,” Baker and Jordan said in a joint statement. Details of the agreement were outlined in a 32-page document.

Kerry’s campaign agreed to the commission’s proposal for venues, dates and moderators last month. Bush’s campaign at first sought only to limit the scope to two presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, according to those familiar with the negotiations.

The two campaigns also agreed to the commission’s selection of moderators: Jim Lehrer of PBS for the first, Charles Gibson of ABC for the second, Bob Schieffer of CBS for the third, and Gwen Ifill of PBS for the vice presidential debate.

The two sides agreed that the three presidential debates would just be between Bush and Kerry and not include any third-party candidates, such as Ralph Nader.

The two campaigns debated over the format of the town-hall style session in St. Louis.

The final agreement calls for a live audience of between 100 and 150 persons who describe themselves as likely voters who are either “soft” Bush supporters or “soft” Kerry supporters — with an equal number from each group. Audience members will be selected by the Gallup poll organization.

With a guaranteed television audience of tens of millions of people, the debates could be pivotal given the closeness of the race. National polls are mixed, with some showing a dead heat and others showing a modest lead for the president.

In a poll by the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of those surveyed said the debates would matter in deciding how they would vote. Some 68 percent said their minds were already made up.

Those undecided voters could make a huge difference. According to a Nielsen survey, 46.6 million people watched the first debate between Bush and Al Gore in 2000. The second and third debates drew audiences of 37.6 million, and 37.7 million, respectively.

In 2000, Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore debated three times in 90-minute sessions in October. Their running mates debated once that month.

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