Debates Matter, After All

According to some pundits, last week's first presidential debate was to be a sham.

The 32-page memo of understanding between the candidates laid out such restrictive rules (such as disallowing the opponents even to address each other) that the debate's ability to yield insights was thrown into doubt.

This newspaper, too, regretted (and still regrets) the devolution of presidential debates into highly staged events. But as the first head-to-head between George Bush and John Kerry showed, the format, despite the restrictions, still has meaning.

Thankfully, Americans were not scared off by predebate comparisons of the broadcast political contest to, for instance, the TV game show "Jeopardy!" Over 62 million Americans tuned in, a third more than watched the first debate of 2000.

Absent the deafening noise of "swift boat" and "national guard" campaign ads, they were able to hear and spot clear differences in policies, attitude, and style between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry. And, according to polls, most viewers rated the debate a win for Kerry.

Mano a mano between the candidates, and direct answers from them to viewers, still serve a vital purpose. Presidential debates, even prepackaged ones, can inform and change public views. With two more to go, this race's dynamics are likely to change.

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