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Spontaneity isn't in debate script

No reference to a specific individual in the audience. No direct questions to each other. No questions from undecided voters. No movement by candidates outside a predesignated area. And no TV shots of a candidate when he isn't answering a question.

These are just a few of the rules laid down in the 32-page debate agreement governing the schedule of four national debates, three presidential and one vice presidential, that start Thursday evening at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

The product of intensive negotiations between high-powered representatives of President Bush and challenger John Kerry, the litany of restrictive requirements reads more like a recipe for stilted dialogue and staged confrontation. If there's any way to wring the life out of a verbal debate between two candidates so clearly opposed to each other, this document has found it.

From the manner in which candidates are to enter the stage ("proceed to center stage, shake hands, and proceed directly to their positions behind their podiums"), to the camera angles allowed and the denial of follow-up questions to audience members participating in the second debate, every possibility of spontaneous action or reaction has been restricted.

While we have no desire to see a repeat of Al Gore's famous sighs of derision from the 2000 debates, the current array of rules seems oppressive and detailed to the point of absurdity.

Most polls suggest that these debates will be a huge factor in the final decisions voters will make, just weeks before Election Day. But the rules drafted to govern the events almost guarantee that viewers will see an overly scripted, highly controlled exchange, not the robust, spontaneous debate that could shed light on a close, competitive campaign.