The presidential debates televised this week from New Hampshire are generating, well, a lot of debate.
Specifically, the amount of time the camera and the microphone went to so-called "top tier" candidates, versus lesser time for lesser-known aspirants, is prompting calls for a more equal-opportunity format at this early stage in the 2008 campaign.
The complaints might be shrugged off merely as sour grapes by less-than-leading candidates in two very crowded fields – except that political analysts, voter-turnout advocates, and voters themselves seem inclined to take their side.
"The debates were reasonable, though a disproportionate share of the attention was on the top-tier candidates," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., who watched them on TV. "Initially, it's of value to always give a chance to all the candidates."
Many who attended the debates, jamming into a glammed-up hockey rink at Saint Anselm College here, already have a favorite horse in the race. But for millions of Americans who tuned in on CNN, the forums may well help to form their impressions of the candidates, and the amount of camera time a candidate gets can work to subtly shape notions of who's a contender and who's not, some analysts say.
True, the sheer size of the field, eight Democrats and 10 Republicans so far, makes it hard to find a format that is both fair to candidates and relevant for voters. This week's debates allowed most candidates the opportunity to give only a bare-bones explanation of their proposals or positions on issues – even though each debate ran, without commercial interruption, for two hours.
"A minute or 30 seconds on foreign policy is a parody of what it ought to be," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, who senses that viewers are feeling short-changed. "It's been more about the [CNN} anchors and reporters, and that's the problem."
In fact, CNN's Wolf Blitzer stole the show during Tuesday night's debate among the Republican hopefuls, according to a "talk clock" that tracked candidates' speaking time. Set up by the campaign of Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, the clock showed that Mr. Blitzer spoke for 19-1/2 minutes, compared with about 12-1/2 minutes for Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, and 11 for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Tommy Thompson, former secretary of Health and Human Services, didn't get his first question until about 14 minutes into the debate – and ended up with 4 minutes, 21 seconds of time total. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee didn't speak until about 17 minutes into the event.
During the Democrats' debate on Sunday night, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois got the most time, with 16 minutes. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards of South Carolina also fared well, Senator Dodd's clock showed. As for Dodd himself? He got 8-1/2 minutes – about half the time of Senator Obama.
"Really nothing about the debate was equitable, from the unprecedented assignment of podiums [with Obama, Senator Clinton, and Mr. Edwards at center stage] to the allotment of time," says Dodd spokeswoman Christy Setzer. "We'll count on the DNC [Democratic National Committee] at future events to mandate some even-handedness."
CNN defended its handling of the debates, including its decision to place at center stage the three candidates with the highest poll numbers or biggest war chests.
"The candidate positions [on stage] were selected based on television angles. CNN felt most questions from the other [Democratic] candidates would be directed at Clinton, Edwards, and Obama, so the decision was made to place them in the center," the network said in a statement. It handled the Republican debate similarly, placing Messrs. Guiliani and Romney and Senator McCain in the middle.
Some analysts disagreed with that decision.
"I give them credit for using their judgment, but it sent a signal: Only pay attention to the center of the stage," says Dr. Sabado. "It's damaging to the network. They need to realize that viewers believe they have hidden preferences."
What kind of format would better serve voters?
Sabado suggests scheduling a series of debates, with only four or five candidates at each one, and the candidates at each one selected by a lottery system. He'd also like to see candidates ask questions of other candidates.
Dr. Pitney at Claremont McKenna College concurs that presidential debates with fewer candidates would be more revealing and would lead to much more information for voters.
"The campaign itself may solve the [debates] problem," he adds, as candidates drop out and the fields winnow.
Mike Biundo, a senior adviser to the Thompson campaign, feels Tuesday's debate was "very unfair as far as the time allotment," but says there's not much to be done about it.
For lesser-known candidates like Mr. Thompson, the answer is grass-roots campaigning in New Hampshire, he suggests.
"We're sitting in the first-in-the-nation primary state that prides itself on the ability of all candidates have access ... to voters," says Mr. Biundo.